The People of Vieques, Puerto Rico vs. the United States Navy. (Review of the Month)

By Backiel, Linda | Monthly Review, February 2003 | Go to article overview

The People of Vieques, Puerto Rico vs. the United States Navy. (Review of the Month)


Backiel, Linda, Monthly Review


David Brandishes a Slingshot

On April 19, 1999, two F-18 jets mistook the navy's red-and-white checked observation post on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico for a target, and dropped 500 pound bombs on it. Vieques resident David Sanes was working at the observation post as a security guard for the navy. He was killed almost instantly. Three other men from Vieques were seriously injured. Sanes' death sparked a wave of protest--civil disobedience, marches, petitions, resolutions, and lobbying--which resulted in the promise, made by then U.S. President Clinton and reiterated by his successor, that the navy will leave Vieques by May 2003. The navy says these plans will not be affected by war on Iraq. As veterans of earlier navy promises, the Viequenses, and the people of Puerto Rico, are wary.

That promise from a U.S. president represents an unprecedented victory for Puerto Rico. It is a victory not only over the Colossus of the North, to whom Puerto Rico is still in colonial thrall, but a]so over the perennial divisions created by the uncertainty about its relation to the United States and the rest of the world. To appreciate the significance of that victory, some history is necessary.

Vieques is a fifty-two-square-mile island about fifteen miles to the southeast of the main island of Puerto Rico. It has a population of 9,400 and is one of Puerto Rico's seventy-eight municipalities. According to the United States Supreme Court, Puerto Rico is legally an "unincorporated territory" which "belongs to, but is not part of" the United States. Under U.S. law, Puerto Rico is neither an independent nation, nor a state. Its official title "Estado Libre Asociado" literally means "free associated state," but the United States has decreed that the only acceptable translation is "commonwealth." Puerto Rico enjoys none of the sovereignty of members of the British Commonwealth. Instead, it has a degree of autonomy over local government, but no power whatsoever over issues related to international relations, defense, and relations with the United States. U.S. laws, except those few specifically determined "locally inapplicable" are applied in Puerto Rico by U.S. law enforcement and regulatory agencies. One symbol of this relationship is the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico enjoyed considerably more autonomy in 1898, when it was invaded by the United States, than it does today. It was then an autonomous territory of Spain, with its own legislature, courts, and money. Invaded and colonized by the Spanish during the previous four centuries, it had developed a unique culture within dearly defined natural borders. As the result of the nineteenth century wars of liberation in Latin America and Puerto Rico's close collaboration with the movements that generated them, Spain negotiated a Treaty of Autonomy with Puerto Rico. The relationship between Puerto Rico and Spain, which included deputies sent to the equivalent of the Spanish legislature, could not be altered without mutual consent.

After the U.S. Navy invaded Puerto Rico at Guanica and bombarded San Juan (resulting in civilian casualties) during W. Randolph Hearst's "splendid little war," the United States demanded Spain "cede" Puerto Rico as part of the price of peace. Its eastern coast would provide a coaling station and strategic outpost in the Caribbean for the navy. Under the December 10, 1898 Treaty of Paris (in which no representative of Puerto Rico was involved or consulted), Spain purported to cede to the United States as war booty what it had no right to cede: the territory, seas, natural resources, and people of Puerto Rico. Vieques was part of that war booty.

Between 1941 and the mid-1950s, the U.S. Navy expropriated 26,000 of Vieques' 33,000 acres by process of eminent domain, as an annex to its huge Roosevelt Roads base located on Puerto Rico's eastern coast at Ceiba. Only the largest landholders--primarily the sugar companies--were compensated, resulting in the forced eviction, often on little or no notice--of thousands of families.

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