|VIEQUES, Puerto Rico - Almost 30 years ago, I served a three-month federal sentence for interrupting the U.S. Navy's military maneuvers in the Puerto Rican island-municipality of Culebra. As in Culebra then, the Navy has been conducting military exercises in Vieques, Puerto Rico's other island-municipality, for almost 60 years. Puerto Rican residents have been threatened by the Navy's bombardment and squeezed into a narrow strip of land. Once more, I am defying federal authorities from a Navy firing range.
I have lived in a tent since May 8. I have pledged to continue until the Navy decides to stop the bombing and declares its intention to leave or until I am arrested. The Navy's inaction displays the lack of moral authority of its unwanted presence in Vieques. If arrests take place, public opinion will force the Navy to leave even sooner.
Only days before we entered this range, a Puerto Rican civilian employed by the Navy was killed and four others injured by a stray bomb. The governor then responded to public outrage by commissioning a panel of representatives from all political parties and other notables.
Its unanimous report, proclaimed by the governor as Puerto Rico's public policy, demanded "the permanent and immediate cease-and-desist of all Navy activities [in Vieques] and the prompt and orderly devolution of all Navy land."
For the first time since the 1898 invasion, all political sectors in Puerto Rico have defied the U.S. government. My opponents for the governorship in next year's elections have pledged to join in civil disobedience if the Navy resumes bombing. So have Puerto Ricans of all religious denominations -- including Bishop Alvaro Corrada of the Vieques diocese. The Rev. Jesse Jackson visited our camp with the archbishop of San Juan last summer, and both promised to return in fast and prayer as part of a hemispheric effort. U.S. Senate hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani, the New York City Council, prominent members of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus and even presidential contenders Al Gore, Bill Bradley and George W. Bush have expressed their sympathy with the will of the Puerto Rican people.
But this is not a mere conflict between the Navy and a local community. It is a confrontation by a people with a separate and distinct nationality that strikes at the heart of our colonial problem. Internationally, traditional allies of the United States in the Permanent Conference of Latin American Political Parties and the Socialist International Committee for Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the United Nations decolonization committee have supported the Navy's withdrawal from Vieques.
In civil disobedience, we came to this beach as human shields. Now we are the spearheads of the will of the Puerto Rican people.
Vieques also presents important environmental issues. Here, next to the idyllic beach from which I write, lies a lunar wasteland of unexploded ordnance and depleted uranium-tipped radioactive shells littered about in dead wetlands and lagoons, scorched earth and devastated marine turtle nests.
Nevertheless, the Navy insists on Vieques. It disingenuously argues that nowhere else on earth can it conduct its practices without compromising U.S.national security. It has engaged in manipulative browbeating of Puerto Rican officials through its mouthpieces in the Senate Armed Services Committee to force a supposedly balanced solution to enable them to retain control while the old practices continue. But ultimate responsibility lies with the U.S. president.
As commander in chief, Bill Clinton either will cave in to the Navy or stand up to its obstinate insubordination to civilian authority and human rights. To veto the will of the Puerto Rican people would be no mere exercise of imperial discretion but an act of tyranny.
Beyond these concerns stands Puerto Rico's inalienable right to self-determination and independence. In this post-Cold War age of nationalities, the most powerful enemy of the Puerto Rican people in their struggle for sovereign equality is the sense of impotence born of 500 years of colonialism -- 101 under U.S. rule.
In 1898 the Navy was a primary force behind the invasion of Puerto Rico and, since then, the omnipresent spur of our colonial status. The Puerto Rican people must prevail in Vieques. The victory of the Puerto Rican people in their quest for self-respect and human dignity in Vieques is the metaphor for and the prelude to our freedom.
The writer is president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party and a candidate for governor of Puerto Rico in next year's election.
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