Reviewed by Katherine McCaffrey (Department of Anthropology, Montclair State University)
Published on H-LatAm (December, 2003)
Vieques and the Politics of Puerto Rican Identity
Vieques and the Politics of Puerto Rican Identity
In Vieques, the Navy and Puerto Rican Politics, Amilcar Antonio Barreto discusses the recent controversy over live bombing exercises by the U.S. Navy on the inhabited Puerto Rican island municipality of Vieques. Vieques is a fifty-two square mile island situated six miles off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico. Until recently, a population of roughly 10,000 American citizens lived wedged between a naval ammunition facility and a live fire range. The U.S. Navy contended that its facilities in Vieques were crucial to fleet training and national defense. Residents, however, argued that the military presence strangled the island's economy, damaged the local environment and health, and caused social and economic crisis. In 1999, a stray bomb killed a civilian employee of the base, sparking a mass movement that mobilized hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans in Vieques, Puerto Rico, and the United States to halt bombing practices and evict the Navy from Vieques.
Barreto is interested in understanding the reason for this outpouring of support for Vieques from Puerto Ricans on the main island of Puerto Rico and in the United States. In fact mobilizations in Puerto Rico for "peace in Vieques" were perhaps the largest mass demonstrations in Puerto Rican history. Barreto appropriately probes for the deeper significance of the Vieques struggle, and considers reasons why the island's struggle was so evocative for many people. Like Lares, Puerto Rico, home of an abortive uprising for Puerto Rican independence from Spain, Barreto argues that Vieques has become the locus of Puerto Ricans' sense of national identity. He argues that the Vieques movement marks the ascent of a more fervent cultural nationalism and ethnic identity among Puerto Ricans. He situates Vieques' problems within the context of Puerto Rico's colonial relationship with the United States and popular resistance to colonial rule. Thus, in Barreto's book, Vieques becomes a launching pad for a more general discussion of the vicissitudes of Puerto Rican identity on the main island of Puerto Rico and the United States.
The book is a useful introduction to Puerto Rican colonial politics and the chronology of the recent Vieques movement. There are two important themes that Barreto introduces in his book. The first is the connection between U.S. and island politics in Puerto Rico. The involvement of Puerto Ricans in the United States, Barreto argues, was as important as the activism of Puerto Rican islanders (p. 4). This is perhaps an overstatement: the Vieques movement would not have existed outside the tidal wave of popular support in Puerto Rico. Yet the political support of Puerto Rican members of congress, the pressure exerted by high profile celebrities like Ricky Martin, and the demonstrations that pushed New York governor George Pataki to bring his election campaign to Vieques were key factors in the success of the movement. Barreto is convincing in highlighting continuities in political ideologies and practices between the United States and Puerto Rico.
Another important element of Barreto's political analysis is his discussion of Clinton's decision to grant clemency to Puerto Rican prisoners at the height of the Vieques mobilization. As Félix Matos Rodríguez notes in his introduction, Barreto's is one of the first academic analyses of the politics behind Clinton's controversial release of Puerto Rican political prisoners. Barreto argues that freeing the prisoners effectively diverted Clinton's political capital to a secondary issue. Granting clemency to the prisoners was Clinton's attempt to wash his hands of Vieques in such a way that the blame would fall on Congressional Republicans and the resolute will of the military establishment (p.103). One might speculate about whether Clinton ever really had the power to directly confront the military that so brazenly disregarded his authority. As Barreto suggests, only time and continued research will reveal the inner workings of the U.S. political establishment and illuminate the motivations behind these complex political maneuvers.
In general, there are two areas I would like to see developed in Barreto's analysis. The first is an analysis of why the Vieques movement generated such a groundswell of popular support at this particular historic moment, and what this implies for Puerto Rican politics and national identity. Vieques' problems are not new, nor are its struggles. The U.S. Navy's domination of Vieques has long been understood to expose the essence of U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico. Pedro Albizu Campos in the 1940s proclaimed the military expropriations of Vieques to be "the vivisection of the Puerto Rican nation." In the 1970's, Puerto Rican governor Carlos Romero Barcelo, evoking language from the civil rights movement, argued that Vieques' mistreatment by the U.S. Navy exemplified Puerto Rican's "second class citizenship." Why is it now that a broad, popular movement crystallized around these long held sentiments?
There was a civil disobedience campaign in the late 1970s led by fishermen in wooden boats who interrupted military maneuvers, firing slingshots at battleships. In 1978, as in 1999, there was a Vieques Solidarity Network in several U.S. cities that supported the local struggle and played a key role in pushing Congress to hold investigative hearings about the status of Naval activities in 1981. The conflict received international media attention and was brought before the decolonization committee of the United Nations. The question, then, is what changed about the Vieques movement that in the year 2000 organizers were capable of mobilizing 250,000 people on the streets of San Juan? How does one explain the stream of celebrities and political hopefuls that suddenly became interested in Vieques twenty years later? How does one account for the burgeoning power of a long simmering movement, that we know now ultimately was successful in evicting the Navy? (Barreto's book was published before the base closed in May 2003). The death of a civilian employee in and of itself does not adequately explain this transformation. Nor does the symbolic resonance of the issue: how did political divisions give way to consensus? What pushed people from understanding to action? The post-Cold War context, the strength and innovation of grassroots organizations, and the role of the Catholic Church (discussed in brief) need to be analyzed more systematically to understand this political transformation and its implications.
The second issue I would like to see more developed relates to Barreto's analysis of the Navy itself. Barreto suggests that conflict emanated from the Navy's blindness to the social implications of the base. He argues that "the U.S. military establishment failed to understand the depths of Puerto Rican commitment to [the Vieques] cause" (p. 70). The Navy, he argues, ascertained Vieques' strategic importance, but was blind or perhaps indifferent to the plight of Viequenses in particular and Puerto Ricans in general (pp.100-101). The analysis needs to go further. There is a long history of outright antagonism from the military towards the civilian population. The Navy's desire to evict the entire population, however, has always been constrained by global politics. In 1961, Puerto Rican governor Luis Muñoz Marin asked President Kennedy to intervene to block the Navy's efforts to evict islanders. How would such an undemocratic, callous use of force look like to our allies in the free world? Muñoz asked Kennedy. How would our communist enemies use the case to undermine support for the U.S.? Thus, I believe that Barreto's analysis of the Navy needs to cast a wider net. Certainly, the Navy sees Vieques in the context not only of its relationship to Puerto Rico, but to an international network of bases, a command of the western hemisphere, and preparation for global interventions. What happens in Vieques, therefore, has implications for Hawaii, Korea and Okinawa, where residents struggle to evict military bases. It has implications for Panama and the Philippines where communities struggle to hold the military responsible for toxic legacies left behind. What would be the political impact of a community of 10,000 winning a battle against the most powerful military force on the planet? These broader issues factor into an understanding of the seemingly inexplicable recalcitrance of the Navy in Vieques.
Barreto's book appears at a crucial juncture. The U.S. Navy pulled out of Vieques, and the popular movement is regrouping. The present moment is one of reflection: what does the Vieques movement mean? Where do we go from here? Barreto's book is an important contribution to discussions about the meaning and future of Vieques, of Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rican citizens of the United States.
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Katherine McCaffrey. Review of Barreto, Amilcar Antonio, Vieques, the Navy, and Puerto Rican Politics.
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Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.