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  • Ismael Guadalupe, a leader in the struggle to get the U.S. Navy out of Vieques, Puerto Rico.

    Ismael Guadalupe, a leader in the struggle to get the U.S. Navy out of Vieques, Puerto Rico. | Photo: Reuters

Published 24 April 2017
teleSUR spoke with Vieques resident and activist Ismael Guadalupe about Puerto Rico's current and historic battle against U.S. imperialism. 

Ismael Guadalupe was a leader in the struggle to get the U.S. Navy out of Vieques, Puerto Rico. The tactics used by the movement led to a historic victory in 2003, when the U.S. Navy was forced to close its military base on the small island and end all exercises and training, including the testing of bombs.

The fight against the U.S. Navy in Vieques is a good example of Puerto Rico’s status as a colony. Could you tell us how Vieques triumphed against colonialism?

Ismael Guadalupe: Years after the U.S. Navy expropriated the best lands in the country, the most important nationalist leader in Puerto Rico, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos slammed the increased destruction of the island of Vieques. He described it as the dismemberment of our nation. Nationalism was experiencing its worst moments of persecution and murder of activists who fought against imperial aggression with no fear. And so it was Albizu Campos who set the stage for what happened in Vieques.

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In the beginning, the first followers of Albizuism fought against imperialism using the slogans of the movement. We didn’t grow. We didn’t unite. We remained alone even though our demands were recognized by small sectors.

In 1964, as a young 19-year-old, I joined a protest against the navy's continued attempts to expropriate land from Vieques. University students organized a march to protest and the messages they used were not the traditional anti-U.S. slogans.

These new slogans opened the door to alliances with U.S.-aligned groups. Later, other organizations reclaimed these messages that divided us and separated us from the people. The Puerto Rican Socialist Party and its committee in Vieques opened their doors to us in order for us to work together around our demands.

Although in the beginning, the central demands were against the effects of military exercises, this later grew with the creation of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques to encompass a set of demands known as the 4Ds: demilitarization, decontamination, development and the return of lands. With these demands and new fighting strategies, we were able to grow, impact and shut down the navy, which had to close its base where they trained and tested bombs for future aggression against other countries.

The Vieques movement was able to unite many groups, parties and personalities in Puerto Rico. As one of the leaders, could you tell us how you were able to achieve this level of unity, given how difficult it is to achieve?

Ismael Guadalupe: At different periods, the struggle was led by different organizations with different leaders. As a wide-spanning, democratic and participatory struggle, we did away with those distorted visions of leadership, where the decisions of one person rule over the decisions of the rest. This led to a unique strategy of fighting against the navy base.

And so a new organization was created in Vieques: the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, with a broader vision of struggle brought in new leaders from Vieques and the mainland of Puerto Rico.

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The committee that was created outside of Vieques included members who had a strategy for uniting different and diverse sectors, which gave form to how the committee envisioned the struggle. Different ideologies and a wide range of organizations joined the committee.

On April 19, 1999, when a young man (David Sanes) who was working at the navy base died after a bomb exploded at his security post, the people of Vieques were horrified.

The CPRD united the people and together that afternoon protested at the entrance to the military facilities at Camp Garcia. The next day the CPRD called the people to come together in front of town hall and this began a new stage of the struggle. We decided to organize a civil disobedience protest suggested by one of the members of the committee to enter the area by sea and take it over, followed by dozens of fighters.

This action shook Puerto Rico and every party, church, union, cooperative, association and other groups clamored to support Vieques.

The triumph of this tactic rested in the leadership which utilized its capacity to adapt to change. It used strategies which were non-violent, non-verbal, non-physical, but always firm, never taking a step back.

When Sept. 11 and the attacks on the U.S. happened, the CPRD called for a moratorium on its actions. Believing this was an opportunity to discredit the CPRD, some groups ignored the call but the people supported it. Once the moratorium was lifted, we continued to fight until the navy stopped using our island as a shooting range.

Vieques won immense global support from countries, organizations, parties, congressional members. Tell us how you achieve so much support?

Ismael Guadalupe: For decades, the navy had successfully hidden the situation in Vieques away from the eyes of the world. It was normal for U.S. interests to hide the violations they committed in Vieques; the civilian deaths caused by military accidents; the terror of their planes flying; loaded with bombs over the people; the continuous bombings shaking homes; the bulldozers destroying homes to build bunkers to store bombs. Raising awareness of this reality helped build solidarity.

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Our participation in social forums, the U.N. Decolonization Committee, trips to India, Okinawa, South Korea, Palestine, gave much wider dimension to the fight against military abuse. The participation of well-known U.S. political figures also played an important role. Countless figures publicly expressed support for the struggle like the actor Edward James Olmos and the environmentalist Robert Kennedy, who both performed acts of civil disobedience and were arrested in Vieques. Calls by figures like Ricky Martin and other celebrities meant that what was happening in Vieques could finally be seen.

It was the direction of this movement by the CPDR in Vieques as well as the national committee in Puerto Rico and New York that made this struggle.

Without a doubt, the work of Cuba and Venezuela at the U.N. in support of Vieques also made a big difference. Now it was no longer just our voices.

After the victory in Vieques, what can you tell us about the island today? How have the people, the environment, the way of life moved forward? Did the U.S. comply with your demands?

Ismael Guadalupe: Fourteen years ago, on May 1, 2003, the United States Navy, in response to the fight against them in Vieques opted to close the base. Today, our seas are free. Our fishermen can fish without the pressure of shots and their fishing gear is safe from the destruction of warships.

Now, we do not feel airplanes flying overhead or hear their loud noises which caused us great worry because they were loaded with bombs. Drunken sailors abusing and provoking fights with civilians, which often caused deaths in Vieques, is a thing of the past.

The scene of war we lived in is gone. We are no longer accomplices to the aggressions against other countries. They no longer train to invade countries which do not respect their imperialist encroachments. Today this scenario has disappeared.

But total justice has not come. The United States did not respond to all of our demands — the total decontamination of Vieques, the return of our lands and full development. Indeed, the local government has forgotten about Vieques. The diseases caused by this contamination is still a worry for our people because the pollution persists.

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We have questioned the methodology of the environmental cleanup. The detonation and open burning of bombs on the ground have increased pollution, destroying our resources. In other places, they use detonation boxes where the bombs are detonated inside a box to prevent the spread of toxins.

Hundreds of Viequenses have died after the navy stopped using Vieques as a base. They retain more than half of our land. Vieques has been invaded mostly by United States' capital with the consent of the colonial government, leading to our marginalization. They have taken over our beaches and resources.

For International Day Against Colonialism, we know that Puerto Rico remains one of the last colonies in the world. Now with the Financial Oversight and Management Board that the U.S. has imposed on the country, tell us how this is yet another example of Puerto Rico’s colonial status.

Ismael Guadalupe: The fiscal crisis created by the various administrations of Puerto Rico’s colonial government has been an opportunity the U.S. Congress has taken advantage of to demonstrate where true power lies.

With the endorsement of the two parties subservient to the United States, congress passed the PROMESA law, which in turn approved a Fiscal Control Board that would make decisions on various aspects of our life as a people.The role of the administrators would be to implement measures that would affect the lives of our people.

The decisions that this board can take are aimed at meeting the payment commitments to the bondholders who are owed millions of dollars. The passage of laws such as anti-labor laws would take away working class gains and reduce benefits such as adequate wages, holidays, bonuses and obviously already approved pay increases.

One example which has kept college students on strike at nearly 11 universities is the elimination of about US$450,000 from state colleges. There is no doubt that university students, together with trade union organizations, leftist and even those in the center, are putting up a fight.

The colonial government is subjected like never before to the U.S. Congress. The laws of being a colony do not give us the chance to find alternatives to a crisis which is more economic than political because it has shown us as a colony.

In conclusion, is there anything else you would like to add?

Ismael Guadalupe: The colonial status suffered by Puerto Rico has allowed military abuse against not only Vieques and Culebra but all of Puerto Rico by converting the land and air into part of U.S. war adventures.

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Given that the ways of waging war have changed, the use of military facilities has changed. The use of new technology has made traditional wars obsolete, giving way to other methods.

Nevertheless, the use of land is still required by the military industrial complex in order to test the new weapons.

As former President Eisenhower said in the 1950s, wars today are determined by that military complex. The working class gives their children and the rich give their investments to the new weapons. These are the ones who put their senators and representatives in the U.S. Congress.

The colony’s struggle to stop the weapons buildup is challenging because the true power is not in our hands. Countries like South Korea or Japan are independent but their governments are docile before the United States because their leaders have been bought out. So other countries must fight to achieve full independence.

These struggles wherever they are, even on U.S. soil, raise awareness of the powerful who control the world.

In the colony of Puerto Rico, we have achieved much in this respect. We received a lot of support from different sectors that expressed solidarity with the people of Vieques in the face of military abuses. In striving to eradicate military facilities, we are fighting for a new world, for a world of peace.

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