Protests muted at Vieques range in wake of Sept. 11

Most want Navy out, but few demonstrate

January 24, 2002|By BOSTON GLOBE

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico - In the shade of a banana tree, they swayed to Lee Greenwood's anthem "God Bless the USA" ringing out from a powerful sound system. American flags fluttered in the gentle breeze, and in the center of town, the days of thunderous protest over military bombing exercises seemed a remote memory.

"There were those who burned flags and yelled, `Yankee, go home,' but no more," said state Sen. Miriam Ramirez at a rally Sunday in support of the Navy's occupation of this island's eastern flank. "The ships that train here go on to the [Persian] gulf. September 11th sealed it."

Most people on this island of one-lane roads and roaming horses still want the Navy out. But a comparative quiet has reigned since the terrorist attacks prompted protest leaders to call a moratorium on civil disobedience, a calm reinforced by President Bush's promise last June to pull the Navy off the island by May 2003 and this month's decision to move bombing exercises from Vieques to North Carolina and Florida.

Nine months have passed since Vieques captured world headlines, when celebrities joined hundreds of residents opposed to the bombing runs that they blame for heart abnormalities and other illnesses. Then, flares lit the sky and cheers went up as protesters cut fences and ventured onto Navy property.

Now, bored state police patrol the buffer zone. Weathered signs proclaiming "Peace for Vieques" flap against the fence, and the only other sounds are the echoing calls of roosters in the surrounding hills.

The last bombing exercises held here - with dummy warheads used since two live bombs missed the target and killed a Puerto Rican security guard in 1999 - passed with only muted demonstrations at the end of September.

A lone women standing outside the Camp Garcia gate shouted, "Navy out now," while 20 others looked on in silent prayer.

"The period after September 11th demanded pause, reflection, re-evaluation," said Robert Rabin, originally of Everett, Mass., who has worked here for 20 years, most recently as director of a museum and head of a protest group. "We needed to assess strategy for a struggle that is not over."

What might have reignited protests ended in a fizzle when the Navy announced the transfer of January exercises to Florida and North Carolina. Military officials denied bowing to pressure, saying that troops were under a tight timetable and had quicker access to mainland training grounds.

Protesters abandoned plans for a major demonstration and instead held a giant pig roast on Vieques last week, without celebrities such as actor Edward James Olmos or environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who joined protesters last April.

Given the choice, islanders want to see an end to the Navy base, which occupies 70 percent of 21-mile-long, 5-mile-wide Vieques.

In a nonbinding referendum on Vieques in July, 68 percent said the Navy should leave at once. Sporadic demonstrations have continued on the mainland, and fence-cuttings at Camp Garcia still occur nightly, Navy officials say. There have been no arrests.

Many have pinned hopes on Bush's promise to remove the Navy by May 2003, a vow he has not reiterated publicly since Sept. 11. Residents were heartened this month when Puerto Rico's governor, Sila Maria Calderon, said Bush had assured her he will keep his promise.

And yet there are those like Hector Bouyett, 55, a retiree who spends from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. every night at a makeshift protest compound across from the Camp Garcia gate.

"Yes, Bush has said the Navy will leave, but I'll believe it when it's in writing," Bouyett said. "Until then, the military can keep looking for [Osama] bin Laden, and I will keep up my fight."

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