Reclaiming the Beaches: Vieques Updates, Summer 2005
Puerto Rico Update, Summer 2005
Environmental Movement and Peaceful Action
By Wanda Resto Torres
Civil disobedience actions to support free access to the beaches and ocean of Puerto Rico have multiplied in recent months – and forced developers to back off plans to exploit ecologically sensitive beaches.
Alberto de Jesús, known as Tito “Kayak,” and the activist group “Amigos del M.A.R.” entered lands in March known as Boca de Cangrejo (Mouth of Crabs) in Carolina, a public beach facility. Like many other Puerto Ricans, they were concerned about the Courtyard Marriott Hotel’s plan to expand in an area contiguous to the terrestrial marine zone and located on a beach area used by families and workers for recreation. If the construction were allowed to continue, it would have had a substantial negative impact on the environment and make the public beach inaccessible, to non-hotel guests.
Protesters dismantled the existing groundwork for the construction and removed iron rods and other construction materials from the area. Kayak chained himself to a truck and obstructed the passage of heavy construction machinery. Others approached the beach in kayaks. Police were present and stayed nearby, but no one was arrested.
Kayak was one of the Vieques activists who stepped onto the top deck of the Statue of Liberty in November 2000 and flew a banner reading “Bieke o Muerte,” an action that led to his spending a year in a U.S. prison.
In the early morning of May 18, Kayak and others were arrested for their occupation of the Marriott site.
These actions and concerns spurred an investigation by the Puerto Rican legislature to determine the validity of the land lease to the Marriott Corporation and the appropriate level of development for those lands. In addition, residents filed a lawsuit against Hotel Marriott Corp, the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board and other government agencies, resulting in an annulment of the construction contract between the Municipality of Carolina and Marriott.
On June 2, Judge José Loubriel Vázquez ruled that the lands in controversy were public by nature and affirmed that natural resources that shelter the ecosystem require special consideration. He wrote, “The environmental protection that comprises our patrimony demands attention and urgent action for preserving the environment for future generations.”
The decision put an end to Marriott’s condo and hotel construction on public land and constituted a victory for environmental groups, who kept a protest camp on the beach for several months. The judge further indicated that the Puerto Rican people’s interest in its patrimonial properties must not yield to economic interests. He added that the courts are called to be zealous guardians of this balance.
Vieques Activists Back on Bombing Range
Off the east coast of Puerto Rico, Vieques residents continue to reclaim their land and waters. In March, several environmentalist groups camped on a Vieques beach known as Playa Caracas to claim their right to use the area. The group planted palm trees in honor of cancer survivors and of those who have passed away due to illnesses suspected to be caused by contamination. The group demands the government clean up the area and return it to the people of Vieques.
“Yachts have been arriving by water into the impact area,” said Robert Rabin, spokesman for the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (CRDV). “It demonstrates the irresponsibility of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) that left the areas open with no protection.”
Meanwhile, others are concerned because if people can get to the northern beaches on yachts or boats then they can enjoy the luxury of the beaches – while local residents cannot. Viequenses have a tradition of setting up camps on the beaches during Easter vacations, but they are now prohibited from doing so, according to Nilda Medina, of the CRDV. FWS supervises the land and limits access from sunrise to sundown, justifying the time limits by alleging the beaches are not safe. But according to Medina, “that is merely an excuse because during the daytime there is access.”
Activists renewed their efforts on Memorial Day weekend with a three-day occupation of the former bombing area in Vieques. “We are here to denounce the open burning and open detonation of bombs,” said Ismael Guadalupe, another Committee leader. Community groups oppose open detonation of bombs as a cleanup method, since it threatens to further contaminate the island, and there are proven alternative methods for disposing of the bombs. With no community participation, the EPA granted the Navy an “emergency” permit for open detonation of munitions.
The occupation followed a march by dozens of people through the federal lands on May 14.
While these activists work for environmental justice, and healthy and decontaminated lands, President Bush has proposed to cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by $7.6 billion in 2006. Programs that could suffer deep cuts include those for water quality protection and land preservation and restoration.
Sources: Interviews; El Nuevo Día 3/27/05; Primera Hora 6/3/05; redbetances.com.
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By Rima Brusi
Resistance to a military presence on campuses of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), and to the ROTC in particular, is as old as the relationship between the university and the armed forces. It has been a combined struggle and shared goal for pacifists, educators, independence advocates, environmental groups and others who oppose militarism on moral, pedagogical and political grounds.
On Sept. 15, 2003, a group of students from the University Front for Demilitarization and Education (known as FUDE, for its acronym in Spanish) occupied the space slated for the reconstruction of a building for the Air Force ROTC at the UPR Mayagüez campus. After six months of civil disobedience, and as a result of negotiations with university authorities, the camp was dismantled and the building reassigned to the Dean of Students for a better use.
During that process, students from the FUDE kept watch at the camp and engaged in other activities, including the symbolic taking over of the main ROTC building on campus. Students gave educational talks, prepared and distributed anti-recruitment literature and hosted guest lectures on the topic of militarism. They inspired others to organize, and as a result, two new organizations emerged: “Profesores con el FUDE,” composed of UPR-Mayagüez faculty, and “Universitarios por la Desmilitarización,” which included students, faculty and university employees from all parts of the island.
One of the goals of the most recent movement in Mayagüez was to open academic spaces to discuss the topic and to make those spaces broader and more legitimate. This is how the idea for the First Congress on University and (Anti)militarism, which took place in Mayagüez Jan. 26-27, came about.
During the Congress, militarism in and outside the university was examined under the lens of concepts such as democracy, social justice, pedagogical theory, public and environmental health, ethics and history. Anti-military art from current and past stages of the struggle was exhibited in the university gallery, and students, faculty and community members had the opportunity to listen and participate. Talks dealt with the history of anti-military movements in Puerto Rico, the (often undisclosed) costs of militarism and its corollary, war and the pedagogical and economic implications of accepting a military presence in universities and high schools. Sharon Frase, one of the lawyers leading the case against the constitutionality of the Solomon Amendment, (1) spoke on the recent victory at the Appeals Circuit.
The Congress achieved much. It created a space for the academic discussion of militarism, for which the academia has been a forced home for a long time. In the process, it also questioned and deconstructed notions that had taken hold of the collective imagination:
- That the army gives much and asks little from the university (rather the opposite, it gives little and asks for a lot);
- that “ military science” — the name given to ROTC programs in universities and colleges — is a legitimate academic subject (when it is against academic mission statements and pedagogical goals);
- that it is illegal and ultimately impossible to fight against military presence in universities. In fact, the legality of that presence is itself questionable, the struggle is very much possible, and some of its fruits are already visible.
1. The Solomon Amendment conditions universities’ receipt of many kinds of federal funding to their facilitation of military recruitment and establishment of ROTC units.
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by Wanda I. Resto
More than 800 faith-based activists gathered in Washington, D.C. in March at the Ecumenical Advocacy Days, an effort sponsored by dozens of groups. Events organized in eight thematic tracks focused on the urgency of pursuing sensible and peaceful solutions to conflicts as well as the need for aid, debt and trade policies benefiting impoverished people worldwide. Participants learned about and advocated for U.S. policies that nurtured peace, lifted up marginalized people and protected the integrity of creation.
Judith Conde, President of the Vieques Women’s Alliance, was hosted by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and shared the powerful voices of Vieques women on the state of health in Vieques and the consequences of the U.S. Navy’s presence. Women have been key figures in Vieques’ struggle for environmental cleanup, return of lands from the U.S. government to local people and demilitarization and sustainable economic development. Conde shared insight and put faces on the high incidence of cancer and other diseases and the mortality rate in Vieques. She said speculation by foreign real estate investors, mostly from the United States, has provoked uncontrolled price rises of land and property.
During a workshop, Vieques, Puerto Rico — Toxic Implications of Militarism on Environmental Health, led by the Vieques Women’s Alliance and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Conde spoke about the listing of Vieques on the National Priority List of the 100 most contaminated sites (Superfund).
She also addressed the reality that Congress did not return the Navy lands to their rightful owners — the people of Vieques.Instead, 14,000 acres of former Navy lands on the east end of Vieques and 4,000 acres on the west end were transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior (FWS). The contaminated lands, including the bombing range and maneuver areas, were designated as Wilderness Area and Wildlife Refuge. Conversations led to a suggestion to circulate a request for action as talking points with congress members in support of the residents of the Island of Vieques.
Conde met with staff of Congress members and the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico and requested their support for Vieques by appropriating funds for the remediation of the people’s health.
She was supported in her request by many people of faith participating in the Ecumenical Advocacy Days, who asked their members of Congress to
- appropriate sufficient funds annually in the Department of Defense budget for the cleanup of toxins in Vieques.
- compensate Vieques residents for the damage to their health as a result of the Navy’s 62-year occupation and bombing of Vieques
- conduct a complete and thorough hydrological study of the Vieques island
- oppose proposals to exempt the military from environmental laws
- find ecological alternatives to the removal of unexploded ordinances in the island
Conde also spoke publicly at “La Casa” in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington and was interviewed on Pacifica Radio.
Sources: Interviews with Judith Conde 3/11/05