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For 60 years the US navy used the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for bombing practice. In May 2003, after a protracted nonviolent campaign, the navy packed up and shipped out. One year on, Robert Rabin reflects on the role local fishing boats and fishermen played in this epic struggle.

David v Goliát en Vieques, Puerto Rico

On 1 May 2004 we celebrated the first anniversary of the end to 60 years of US navy bombing and presence here on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. An intense four-year campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience disrupted navy manoeuvres to the point of forcing an end to over half a century of military use of this island municipality, six miles south east of the main island of Puerto Rico.

The death of a civilian Navy employee - David Sanes Rodri'guez - caused by an errant bomb during military exercises, forced the entire population of Vieques and the majority of Puerto Ricans to think and act upon the horrible situation here that our community has been protesting against for decades.

Civil disobedience & direct action

The day after David's death, fishermen in small boats began to transport people to the bombing zone where over fifteen civil disobedience camps were set up which prevented the navy from bombing until 4 May 2000, when Navy personnel, Federal Marshalls, FBI agents and Puerto Rican police arrested over 250 people. Shortly afterwards, the bombing began again.

During the year of the camps' existence, fishermen and other boat owners ferried in people, food and building materials to keep the “human shields” provided with the basic necessities.

Over the next three years more than 1,500 people were arrested in actions designed to call attention to the issues of environmental destruction, the correlated health problems, the crass violation of human rights caused by the navy's presence, and to stop the bombing.

These actions generally included transporting people in fishing boats, in the dark of night or very early morning, into areas around the bombing zone at the eastern end of Vieques. Men and women, old and young, people from Vieques, from the “Big Island”, from the US, Canada and elsewhere, were moved by sea to navy restricted zones, with their tools of dissent: flares, water, radios, maps, flags, dry food, cell phones and lots of love.

Our one advantage

Despite constant and serious warnings to fishermen and other boaters from the Federal

Government about confiscation of fishing vessels, exaggerated fines and prison sentences, Vieques waters continued to be the main routes for dissenters to get out to the navy's bombing range to stop the destruction.

We had just one advantage - Vieques fishermen knew more about the area than navy personnel. The fishermen knew where coral reefs lay just beneath the surface of the water, what coastal areas were deep enough to zip through and how to use the dense mangrove lagoons as refuges and hiding areas. Fishermen also know the look and sound of the ocean surface and can distinguish at great distances the dangers or chances for an “entrance” into the bombing area.

Supernatural protection?

This was not the first time in Vieques's long battle with the US navy that fishermen played a key role. In the late 1970s, Vieques fishermen organised a flotilla that successfully blocked US navy and NATO manoeuvres on several occasions. These battles were not always peaceful and photos from that period show fishermen in their small boats with slingshots and potalas (small metal fishing line weights) poised against battleships or Coast Guard boats that tried to help the navy continue bombing Vieques.

During the most recent phase of struggle, fishermen transported nuns and priests, bishops and reverends, ministers and lay members of every church group imaginable, out to the bombing range in nonviolent “evangelical obedience” for peace on Vieques.

Many here say this struggle has been blessed and point to the lack of any serious injuries or mishaps while thousands of people were moved back and forth by land and water in the bombing range. The fact that no one has been hurt in these fishing boats that move through water in the night into areas full of unexploded ordnance, also lends support to the supernatural protection enjoyed by fishermen and passengers along the civil disobedience maritime trails.

Leap of faith

Like many here, I was arrested on 4 May 2000 and on two other occasions. My second arrest, in October 2000, took place in the bombing zone during large-scale NATO manoeuvres. Hundreds of military personnel, thousands of ships off the coast, jets, helicopters, Puerto Rican Maritime Patrol, Coast Guard and the most sophisticated detection equipment all proved useless against two Vieques fishermen who placed our group of nine on the soft sand of Playa Blanca, inside the US navy's heavily restricted bombing zone, around 4am.

In April 2002 - the last time I was arrested - a fisherman brought our five-member team to the easternmost point of Vieques in very choppy waters around 3.30 in the morning, then suggested we jump in and swim toward a beach only he - with his experienced fisherman's sight - could see. To get there, he got past the intense security and put us within a ten-minute swim into the restricted area.

Boats' key role

During the four-year campaign, fishermen and other boat owners participated in multiple activities. Boat transport was key to creating and maintaining the encampments of human shields; the day after the death of David Sanes, fishing boats transported a few dozen people and a gigantic white wooden cross that was placed close to the point where Sanes was killed; these same boats helped move media people from the Puerto Rican, US and European press which gave wide coverage to the struggle; Father Nelson, a Vieques parish priest, was brought by boat each Sunday out to the ecumenical chapel built in the bombing zone, next to the civil disobedience schoolhouse that offered shelter to the human shields; a flotilla of fishing and solidarity pleasure boats participated in a series of “ceremonial” actions out to navy restricted lands during this period to honour the victims of military violence and martyrs of the struggle for peace on Vieques.

Medina, Ventura, Zenón, Encarnación, Lanzó, Yungo, Ché Ché, and Papo Cariba, are some of the names of the boats that stopped the most powerful military force in the history of humanity from bombing this small island called Vieques.

Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, PO Box 1424, Vieques, Puerto Rico 00765 (+1 787 741 0716; email bieke@coqui.net; http://www.viequeslibre.org/). <

Robert Rabin is a founding board member of the Committee For the Rescue and Development of Vieques, the principal grassroots community organisation in the struggle.