BRONX, N.Y. – “Put it in writing” was the message being sent to President George W. Bush from the National Vieques Summit for Peace with Justice held here April 12-13. The activists were demanding that Bush issue an Executive Order to put force behind his stated commitment to end the use of Vieques as a practice area for the Navy by May 2003. A number of members of Congress have sent letters to Bush demanding an Executive Order to that effect.

The political, labor, religious and community leaders and activists also seconded the proposals of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (CPRDV) that the firing zone must also be decontaminated and returned to the people of Vieques for sustainable development.

Dámaso Serrano, the mayor of Vieques, said, “We have to win in Vieques for the benefit of Vieques, for the benefit of Puerto Rico, and the benefit of the United States.” Noting that he had served in the U.S. Army for eight years, the Vieques mayor said that being against the bombing in the island municipality of 9,300 inhabitants, was not to be anti-U.S.

New York State Assemblyman José Rivera told the conference how he and others were attacked with tear gas in Vieques on April 5. Rivera said that the attack was unprovoked. “We were peacefully demonstrating. We were not even involved in civil disobedience.”

Rivera was videotaping the demonstrations in Vieques when Naval military police launched tear gas into the crowd. His video tape clearly showed that two lines of Puerto Rican police and police barricades stood between the fence surrounding the bombing zone and the demonstrators.

Nilda Medina, a leader of the CPRDV in Vieques, reminded people of the vote taken last summer in Vieques, which showed that 68 percent of the people wanted the Navy out immediately.

That was when the Bush administration announced that it would not go through with the vote that was scheduled to take place last fall and would order the Navy to leave by May of next year. That vote, which was to be supervised by the Navy, did not have the option of immediate withdrawal.

Medina said that even though the Navy has been using inert ammunition, the “dust that is raised is carried by winds to the populated areas.” That dust is contaminated with cancer-causing toxins that were left there because the Navy has bombed the area since the 1940s, she said. Studies have shown that the people of Vieques have a 27 percent higher rate of cancer than the rest of Puerto Rico.

The Navy was forced to stop using live ammunition after bombs fell by an observation center, killing a civilian guard. The military was unable to use the firing range for the next year as hundreds of Puerto Ricans and others set up camps in the area to act as human shields against the bombing.

Medina said that the people of Vieques want all the lands returned to them. Currently, the Bush administration and the Navy have spoken of transferring the land to the U.S. Department of the Interior. She said that the returned land will be entrusted to a land trust so that the area can be developed for ecologically sound tourism.

She noted that the struggle for peace for Vieques “has created a unity among all Puerto Ricans” that is unprecedented. “We know we will win,” she said, and thanked “the North Americans who support this struggle because they know that the future is one of peace and justice.”

The meeting endorsed “non-violent, peaceful civil disobedience and other efforts … as valid means of safeguarding the lives and health of the people of Vieques.”

Rivera announced that 24 were arrested that day in acts of civil disobedience and that others were hiding in the bombing zone. The Navy has admitted that the entrance of people into the area has delayed its maneuvers.

The conference participants, who came from as far away as California, agreed to form a network so that actions could be coordinated throughout the U.S. as well as in Puerto Rico.

The author can be reached at jacruz@attbi.com

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