Get the Hell Out of Vieques Now!
MAY 5–At 3 a.m. yesterday, federal agents launched their long-threatened raid on the camps of resisters occupying the United States Navy’s bombing range on the island of Vieques, off Puerto Rico, arresting more than 200. Among those arrested was Lolita Lebrón, jailed for a quarter century for the 1954 Nationalist attack on the colonial rulers in the U.S. Congress. Also detained were U.S. Congressional representatives Luis Gutiérrez and Nydia Valázquez, several other bourgeois politicians engaging in electoral grandstanding and clergymen. While U.S. Marshals and FBI agents, backed up by the “Grupo de Choque” shock troop of the Puerto Rico Police, made short shrift of the civil disobedience on the tiny island, their action set off protests throughout Puerto Rico and in various U.S. cities. Thousands of students went on strike at campuses in Rio Piedras, Ponce, Mayagüez and Arecibo, as hundreds of protesters including trade-unionists clashed with police outside Fort Buchanan in Guaynabo and others besieged Fort Allen in Juana Díaz.
U.S. president Clinton and his top cop Janet Reno, who ordered “Operation Access to the East” (a/k/a “Vieques Storm”), congratulated themselves that the “removal” of the protesters had gone peacefully. What comes next is hardly peaceful: the Navy has announced it will resume maneuvers there within two weeks. The protesters had taken over the Vieques range a year ago after a civilian guard, David Sanes Rodríguez, was killed by two bombs that hit an administration building. This killing brought to the boiling point the massive discontent over the American military’s high-handed contempt for the population of this Caribbean island colony. Opposition to the Navy’s continued bombing is so pervasive that on February 21, over 150,000 marched in the largest-ever protest demonstration in San Juan demanding “peace for Vieques.”
But the clash over Vieques is a small part of a larger battle over U.S. military and colonial domination of Puerto Rico, and it will not be won by pacifist tactics of “civil disobedience” and “moral witness.” This Caribbean island nation has been under the boot of Yankee imperialism since Washington conquered it in 1898, replacing Spain as the colonial power. For Washington, Puerto Rico is a giant aircraft carrier in the middle of what they consider an American lake, a pivot for U.S. intervention throughout Latin America. Defeating such a powerful enemy poses the need for an internationalist perspective of proletarian revolution throughout the Americas rather than the dead-end class collaboration of Puerto Rican nationalism.
The Internationalist Group, section of the League for the Fourth International, demands that the Navy get the hell out of Vieques, that all U.S. military installations in Puerto Rico be shut down, that U.S. troops be withdrawn from Haiti and the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo be returned to Cuba! Upholding the program of the Third (Communist) International and Trotsky’s Fourth International, we call for unconditional independence for Puerto Rico and all colonies. In this region carved up by the U.S., British, French, Spanish, Danish and Dutch colonial powers, today dotted by tiny, economically unviable island countries, we advocate a voluntary socialist federation of the Caribbean. Above all, we fight to smash imperialism through international workers revolution, in which the more than two million Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland, concentrated in the center of world finance capital, New York, can play a key role.
For more than 60 years, the residents of the “isla nena” (baby island) of Vieques have been sandwiched between a bombing range and an ammunition dump, condemned to poverty due to the destruction of its fishing industry and the impossibility of developing tourism where the Navy practices its amphibious landings and “precision” bombing. Vieques residents have a significantly (27 percent) higher cancer rate than residents of the “isla grande” of Puerto Rico, which many attribute to the contamination from the vast quantities of munitions dumped on the island. Particularly suspect are the “depleted uranium” (U-238) bombs which have been linked by some researchers to the “Gulf War syndrome.” As a result, a large majority of Puerto Rico’s population has demanded “Not one more bomb, Navy out of Vieques!”
Shock troops of the Puerto
Rican Police in en Vieques, where they
The Pentagon has insisted that it must keep the range to carry out live-ammunition assaults and bombing practice. Clinton, however, promised to close the range after 2005 if the local population votes against it in a referendum. In a crude attempt to bribe the impoverished local people, the White House proposed to give them $90 million in federal aid. This was enough to buy the support of Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood governor Pedro Rosselló, whose feigned opposition to the bombing was a bargaining chip to advance his political ambitions on the U.S. mainland. But it didn’t dent the opposition of those who have to live and die under the bombs.
A former Republican Defense Department official has written that “The Navy Doesn’t Need Vieques,” pointing out that the Navy claims its “privilege to shell Puerto Rican beaches by right of conquest (1898 and all that) – a right it has not claimed on, say, Martha’s Vineyard, which would otherwise be an excellent substitute for Vieques, with equally lovely beaches” (New York Times, 2 May). This points to the central fact that the fight over this tiny island cannot be separated from the broader battle over Puerto Rico’s “status.” The bombing of Vieques is only one aspect of the colonial oppression of the Puerto Rican people, and of the military domination that affects every aspect of the island’s life.
The protests were initiated by Rubén Berríos of the small bourgeois-nationalist Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) and have included local leaders of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), which for many years was the dominant capitalist-colonialist party on the island. But while the PIP advocates formal political independence, Berríos & Co. made clear during the 1993 referendum campaign that they support continued U.S. economic and military domination, vowing to maintain the bases that occupy fully 13 percent of Puerto Rico’s territory. The PPD is the architect of the “commonwealth” colonial status, which is falsely called a “Free Associated State” in Spanish although Puerto Rico is neither free, nor associated, nor a state. The populares were the party that brutally repressed the 1950 Nationalist uprising, as well as amassing secret police dossiers (the infamous carpetas) for the FBI on tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans.
U.S. federal agents arrested over 200 occupying Navy bombing range, training ground for imperialist war.
The battle over Vieques has been fought on a lowest common denominator basis in order to facilitate a class-collaborationist alliance subordinated to the colonial and imperialist bourgeoisie. A key role has been played by the Catholic church hierarchy and the religious leaders of other denominations. Last February, when the ecumenical council of church leaders called the march in San Juan, they insisted that it be limited to the demand of “peace for Vieques” and that the only flags be white. The Puerto Rican nationalists and reformist “socialists” who have been active in building protests around Vieques duly obeyed the bishops’ injunction. Recently, while protesters were camped out on Vieques beaches, the archbishop hobnobbed with Admiral Green, as the “spiritual” and military leaders of U.S. colonial domination exchanged their respects.
In the last couple of days, there has been a good deal of bewailing the “loss” of New York archbishop O’Connor, including among clergymen involved in the Vieques protests. This cardinal of counterrevolution was a chaplain for the Marine Corps in Vietnam, giving his pastoral blessing to Washington’s dirty colonial war. At a rally for Vieques last December 5 at the Federal Building in Manhattan, a protest leader insisted that demonstrators were “not anti-American,” “not against the armed forces,” and not even against the Navy! Likewise appealing to U.S. patriotic sentiment, Democratic New York City councilwoman Margarita López speaking yesterday at a vigil outside the armed forces recruiting station in the Bronx hailed the Puerto Rican soldiers’ blood spilled in Korea and Vietnam. Proletarian revolutionaries, in contrast, point out that Puerto Rican soldiers were used as colonial cannon fodder in those counterrevolutionary wars. We defended North Korea and Vietnam against U.S. imperialism, demanding “All Indochina Must Go Communist!”
Instead of presenting the struggle as that of 9,000 beleaguered island residents against a Washington bureaucracy, the battle should be waged as a class struggle against imperialist militarism. Vieques is where U.S. expeditionary forces practised storming ashore prior to invading Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, this is where U.S. pilots practiced their “surgical” bombing techniques so they could send “smart bombs” right down the air shaft of a civilian bomb shelter in Baghdad, killing hundreds of women and children. Here is where they honed their skills so they could accurately bomb a maternity hospital and the Chinese embassy in last year’s U.S./UN/NATO war on Yugoslavia.
Puerto Rico is now home to the U.S. Army South, headquartered at Fort Buchanan, a key component of the U.S. Southern Command, formerly based in the Panama Canal Zone. The Roosevelt Roads Naval Station now hosts the HQ of the Special Operations Command South, as well as several Special Forces detachments. These “counterinsurgency” forces are now being secretly deployed against leftist guerrillas in Colombia under the cover of Washington’s “war on drugs,” the same banner under which a war has been waged against black and Latino ghettos and barrios in the U.S. The fight over Vieques should be waged as a battle to drive out the whole huge apparatus of Yankee imperialist militarism, linking it to the fight against cop repression in the U.S. as well.
The battle should be fought as a class struggle, mobilizing the power of the Puerto Rican working class and workers in the U.S. and internationally. The Grupo de Choque that stood guard outside Campo García on Vieques are the same brutal riot cops who were deployed by Governor Rosselló against the telephone workers’ strike in 1998. And Puerto Rican workers have real power. Much has been made of the fact that the Roosevelt Roads naval base consumes vast quantities of water while scores of municipalities in the eastern part of the island have severe water shortages in the summer. By the same token, the water workers union has the power to turn off the tap to this key military installation. Likewise, the electrical workers union (UTIER) has the power to black out the island. But the key question is leadership, and despite occasional left-sounding pronouncements from these union leaders, in reality they are all defenders of capitalism.
The Frente Socialista, a coalition including the Movimiento Socialista de los Trabajadores (MST–Socialist Workers Movement) and the Taller de Formación Política (TFP–affiliated with the pseudo-Trotskyist United Secretariat), called for a strike by University of Puerto Rico students and for protesting outside Fort Buchanan. But beyond this, these self-proclaimed socialists did not call for workers strike action to protest the military/police invasion of Vieques. FS leaders have been the object of attacks by the colonial government, and must be defended against bourgeois repression. But the fact remains that they have not fought for political independence from the bourgeois elements leading the protests and from the capitalist state.
Dangerous reformist illusions that the capitalist repressive apparatus can serve the interests of the working people are pushed by pseudo-socialists in the U.S. who have been active in Vieques protests. Most notable is the Workers World Party (WWP), and the International Action Center led by it. The WWP has been campaigning for months to get the Clinton administration to send in its police forces to rescue the child Elián González from the Miami gusanos who were holding him hostage in order to stage a counterrevolutionary provocation against Cuba. Workers World (27 April) demanded “that Attorney General Janet Reno end the ongoing delays and enforce the decision that Elián belongs with his father….” Yet barely a couple of weeks later, WWP bleats that the U.S. “is sending federal agents and military troops against peaceful civilian demonstrators” in Vieques (IAC press release, 4 May). Communists and class-conscious workers do not look to the bourgeois state but to the power of the working class to enforce the interests of the exploited and oppressed.
Other “socialists” and even some claiming to be Trotskyists capitulate to imperialism by abandoning the demand for independence for Puerto Rico. This is the case of the Spartacist League/International Communist League (SL/ICL), the Shachtmanite League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) and the Cliffite International Socialist Organization (ISO). More specifically, they refuse to forthrightly raise this elementary call for putting an end to colonial domination, instead seeking to dodge the issue by limiting themselves to calls for the “right to independence” (SL) and “self-determination” (LRP) or the “right to self-determination” (ISO). From the time of Lenin and Trotsky, genuine Bolsheviks have declared that defending the right of self-determination means calling unconditionally for independence for all colonies. The Third International made an uncompromising stand on this question a condition for membership, and the Trotskyist Fourth International specifically called for Puerto Rico’s independence as a blow against Yankee imperialism. So, too, did the SL/ICL until a couple of years ago, when as part of its increasing abandonment of the Trotskyist program it ostentatiously declared, “We do not currently advocate independence for Puerto Rico, not least because the vast majority of the population there is not in favor of it at this time” (Workers Vanguard, 11 September 1998).
This is a chemically pure case of tailism as a pretext for not calling for freeing U.S. imperialism’s largest remaining colony. To pretend, as the SL/ICL now does, that to call for Puerto Rico’s independence means to “force” it on an unwilling population is a ludicrous subterfuge. The same argument could be used whenever communists hold a minority position. Moreover, their attempt to appeal to backward consciousness only lands them in further contradictions. Both the LRP and SL/ICL call for U.S. military bases out of Puerto Rico. But if they don’t call for independence for the island colony, will they then call for U.S. military bases out of North Carolina, Idaho or Utah? The fact is that calling only for the right of self-determination or independence while refusing to call straight out for independence of the colonies is a classic reformist program. In fact, writing of Puerto Rico the SL/ICL today repeats, virtually word-for-word, the policy of the Stalinist French Communist Party on Vietnam in the late 1930s. The fact that it shares this position with social-democratic outfits like the LRP and ISO shows the direction of the SL/ICL’s centrist degeneration.
Genuine communists not only call for independence for the colonies, but link this struggle indissolubly to the fight for international socialist revolution. This means advocating a voluntary socialist federation of the Caribbean, the only way in which independence would not mean a descent into poverty like that prevailing in sugar and tourism islands such as the Dominican Republic and Haiti next door. Proletarian internationalists in Puerto Rico must fight tirelessly to defend Dominican and Haitian refugees against the raids by the INS migra cops and Puerto Rico Police. We demand full citizenship rights for all immigrants, independent of their birthplace, so that their “illegal” status does not offer police and employers an additional tool to victimize them. It is also crucial for Puerto Rican revolutionaries to defend Cuba against imperialism and internal counterrevolution. Against the narrow nationalist politics of the bureaucratic Castro regime, Trotskyists fight for workers political revolution to establish revolutionary soviet democracy and to forge a genuinely internationalist leadership. This is the only way to defend and extend the remaining gains of the Cuban Revolution which are being sacrificed one by one by the Stalinist bureaucracy as it vainly seeks “peaceful coexistence” with rapacious Yankee imperialism.
Above all, it is necessary to forge revolutionary workers parties in Puerto Rico, the United States and throughout the region. A successful fight against colonial capitalist rule, against imperialism’s neo-colonial satraps and within the imperialist heartland itself requires as its indispensable instrument a party of Bolshevik cadres. It is necessary to win the most advanced workers and the best elements from the youth, women and oppressed minorities to prepare themselves through study of the history of the workers movement and by political battles against the present nationalist and pro-capitalist misleaders of the exploited masses. The fight against colonial and military domination of Puerto Rico will not be won by “the people united” or “patriotic unity” which is everywhere the slogan of treacherous unity with the class enemy of the working people.
Even the slogan of “Puerto Rico libre y socialista” betrays
a narrow nationalist perspective with a thin “socialist” veneer. As Trotsky’s
program and theory of permanent revolution elaborated, based on the experience
of the 1905 and 1917 Russian Revolutions, in the imperialist epoch, even
democratic questions such as national independence can only be resolved
in the colonial and semi-colonial countries through the taking of power
by the working class, the undertaking of socialist tasks and the international
extension of the socialist revolution to the advanced capitalist, imperialist
powers. What is required is proletarian, internationalist and revolutionary
unity of the workers of the world, under an authentically Trotskyist vanguard
party, built in the battle to reforge the Fourth International, world party
of socialist revolution. n
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