Thirty-some years ago, Rubén Berríos’ arrest and imprisonment by federal authorities barely 5 days after entering restricted military lands in Culebra set in motion the events that led to the U.S. Navy having to vacate that island municipality. However, in the days of the Cold War, the Navy simply transferred its abuses to Vieques –from one neighboring island to another.
But five years ago, the Navy had to face the problem of its Caribbean military colony again. Old memories must have coursed through Berríos’ mind in May 1999 when a small boat transported him and a dozen PIP members out to Allende Beach –for many decades the victim of amphibious landings, ship-to-shore fire power, and air-to-ground live ordnance that destroyed the ecological balance of one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, contaminated the environment, and damaged the health of Vieques inhabitants. There, in plain view of the military Observation Post where civilian David Sanes had been killed by a 500-pound Navy bomb less than a month before, Berríos disobediently set up a peace camp.
There was unexpected surprise in senators’ faces when, only two days before, Berríos had advanced a U.S. Senate committee session that he would violate federal law in Vieques, this time to make killings like that of David Sanes stop. And the expectation of things to come blended with the memory of the colonial blackmail –federal funds in exhange for democratic principles– to which the commonwealth-party controlled legislature had succumbed in the 1970s, in complicity with pro-statehood legislators, when it censored him for civil disobedience in Culebra.
As he stepped off the boat 5 years ago and settled into what came to be known as the Concepción de Gracia camp, in honor of the PIP founder, Berríos saw the ecological abomination that the Navy had perpetrated. As he wrote to Bill Clinton on July 21, 1999, “Here, next to the idyllic beach from where I write to you, 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.”
Perhaps in 1999 he sensed that, this time, unlike Culebra, he would be there for the long haul because he knew the federal government wanted to “tire him out.” This time, holding the keys to his own freedom, he pledged to remain until the Navy declared its intention to leave, or until he was arrested. “With every passing day,” he wrote in the Washington Post later that year, “the Navy’s inaction unfurls its lack of moral authority: If they arrest us, an outraged public opinion may force the Navy to leave even sooner. For this time, we are not isolated.”
Last week, 5 years after that historic moment, Berríos’ returned. Gone was the Navy. There were new palm trees. The trees with old bullet holes now provided shade. The firing range, previously scorched by bombs and napalm, now shone with patches of green. There were butterflies and birds and friendly coots, and pelicans were nesting, once again, in the massive rocks of nearby keys. Vieques was a different place. “The man on the beach,” as he was oft referred to in Washington circles, had galvanized the righteous indignation of Puerto Ricans. This time, the Puerto Rico Senate had unanimously approved a resolution supporting the senator’s right to represent his constituents through peaceful civil disobedience. From all corners of the Americas came official messages of support for the cause internationalized by the man whom Jamaica’s Norman Manley characterized at a Harvard lecture in 1983 as “one of the great men of our Hemisphere.” Traditional U.S. allies from Europe recognized in him a representative of Puerto Rico’s will for peace and proclaimed him Honorary President of the Socialist International, the most prestigious association of social democratic parties.
Last week, standing in the shade of the strength of character shown by the Puerto Rican people, he glanced at the shore where 5 years earlier he prayed under the warmth of the August sun with Roberto González, Archbishop of San Juan, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson –both international human rights combatants. There, an endless parade of visitors of all ideologies, creeds, and walks of life had ventured into then restricted areas in courageous solidarity. For the first time since the U.S. invasion in 1898, Puerto Rico demanded the permanent cessation of military exercises and the devolution of lands under Navy control. During the 362 days of Berríos’ presence in the Navy firing range, thousands of Puerto Ricans became human shields for peace through civil disobedience.
The visual image seen around the world –the arrest of an honest man, hands tied to his back, grimacing and lying face down under the boots of U.S. marines, calling to his companions to remain calm because “this is a new Puerto Rico”– resonated with the waning days of the military colony on the first anniversary of the Navy’s banishment from Vieques. While colonial leaders substitute intelligent decorum daily with insults to intelligence, and political investors speculate in Vieques real estate and in Puerto Rico’s government, Berríos again came to Vieques to plant a seed of hope.
The sprout of the tamarind tree Berríos planted in the grounds of the old firing range is an offshoot of the tree Nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos planted in Lares, the birthplace of Puerto Rico’s 19th century struggle for freedom –itself a sprout of Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar’s own tamarind tree. It represents the lineage of liberty that Vieques has come to symbolize for Puerto Rico. A simple ecological act that should long be remembered with Berríos’ exultation, “Yesterday, Lares; Vieques today; tomorrow, Puerto Rico!”