Vieques and Okinawa: Allies Against U.S. Troops
by Toby Eglund
AUGUST 7, 2000. As the U.S. Navy launches a second round of bombing exercises in the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, anti-Navy activists there are finding allies in Okinawa, Japan, where pacifist and environmental groups are renewing demands for a reduction of U.S. bases and troops.
Japanese and Puerto Rican activists are developing common strategies to oppose bombings on both islands, including coordinated acts of civil disobedience, and the creation of a permanent Okinawa-Vieques action and information network.
Carlos Zenon, a Vieques fisherman and longtime activist, was a keynote speaker at a massive protest in Okinawa, on July 20, in which more than 27,000 people formed a human chain around the Kadena U.S. Air Force base.
The demonstration took place shortly before a visit by President Clinton, who was in Japan for the G-8 economic summit, a gathering of the leaders of the eight richest countries of the world. Zenon was accompanied by Sheila Velez Martinez, of the Bar Association of Puerto Rico’s Comission on Vieques.
In Vieques, the U.S. Navy occupies two-thirds of the 52-square-mile island (1/3 at each end sandwiching 9,300 civilians in between), expropriated from residents in 1941. Vieques residents have a variety of complaints, ranging from errant missiles, environmental damage from both live and inert bombs, an elevated cancer rate possibly related to bombing materials like depleted uranium, abuse of civil and human rights, and destruction of tourism and the fishing industry.
Okinawans share similar concerns, though the American military presence has helped their local economy. The recent case of a Marine entering an unlocked house and molesting a sleeping 14-year-old girl has inflamed anti-American sentiment. Okinawans blame U.S. troops for crimes ranging from thefts and assaults to rapes and killings.
The United States returned control of Japan’s southern islands to Tokyo in 1972, but U.S. military bases continue to occupy about 20 percent of Okinawa, and are home to 26,000 troops, half of U.S. forces in Japan.
Vieques activists have also found support in Korea, Hawaii and the Phillipines, where U.S. military installations are blamed for environmental contamination and violations of civil and human rights of local residents.
The Vieques-Okinawa alliance comes as the U.S. Navy deploys in Vieques the USS Harry S. Truman Battle Group, which includes 15 ships and 12,000 sailors. The air, ship and submarine training at Vieques and surrounding seas, will again involve shelling and bombing the island. The exercises could run until August 24.
Protests will continue on both Vieques, and on the main island of Puerto Rico. Sunday afternoon, thousands of protesters demonstrated in front of the U.S. Army’s Fort Buchanan. Navy spokesperson, Lt. Jeff Gordon, who had earlier characterized Vieques protesters as “thugs,” said the march was “part of a multi-million dollar smear campaign” directed by groups who want independence for Puerto Rico. He neither named the groups, nor specified how these alleged funds, huge by Puerto Rico standards, were raised.
Despite earlier Navy warnings that entering the restricted areas in Vieques would be much harder, a group of thirty-two women, headed by eleven from Vieques, penetrated security and held a demonstration in the bombing zone, before being arrested at 5 A.M. Monday morning. The group included women from religious organizations and trade unions, four lesbian civil rights activists, and others.
More than 400 Vieques protesters have been arrested since May. Two hundred of them were arrested for trespassing, and nine sailors were injured, during training exercises by the USS George Washington Battle Group in June. Several of the protesters remain in jail. They have refused to post bail, saying they don’t recognize the jurisdiction of U.S. federal courts in Puerto Rico, considered a colony by the United Nations.
According to the Vieques Times, the Navy recently hired a Virginia ad agency in a belated attempt to improve its image and convince Vieques residents that it can be a good neighbor. The Navy’s objective is to persuade Vieques voters to allow the Navy to stay on the island ad infinitum and resume live bombing, if and when the question is addressed in a referendum.
In the meantime, the Navy is transferring the island’s western third, a former ammunition dump, to Puerto Rico, though many question whether the people of Vieques (from whom it was expropriated) will actually be given the land, or whether it will end up in the hands of real estate developers, as was the case on the neighboring island of Culebra.
The Navy has also promised to promote economic development on Vieques with $40 million allocated by Congress. Again, Vieques activists remain skeptical, since all the money from a similar, earlier plan was squandered on “administrative” costs.
President Clinton also tried his hand at military image control during his visit to the Kadena U.S. Air Force base in Okinawa: he told troops to be good neighbors and behave with honor.
To find out what the Navy’s up to on Vieques go to The Vieques Times.
For the U.S. Navy’s viewpoint.
For up-to-the-minute info on Vieques protests go to Vieques Libre.