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The Record, Bergen County, NJ

Terror Attack Leaves Lawmaker Torn On Vieques Issue


October 4, 2001
Copyright © 2001 North Jersey Media Group Inc. All Rights Reserved.

When you talk to him nowadays, you can actually feel how he is torn between conflicting interests.

As a New York State assemblyman from the Bronx, Jose Rivera cries, mourns, and seeks justice for the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. But as a Puerto Rican who seeks independence for the island of his birth, he still wants the U.S. Navy to get out of Vieques ASAP.

That small Puerto Rican island has been used to train U.S. sailors for some 61 years from World War II to the Persian Gulf war. But ever since a Puerto Rican guard was killed by errant Navy bombs in 1999, many have been protesting the military exercises. Some protesters have served jail sentences for trespassing on the range.

Rivera still sports the white beard he grew during the 40 days he spent in a Brooklyn jail for trespassing on the Vieques bombing range.

He vows not to shave the beard until the Navy is out of Vieques, which may take a little longer now that it's uncertain whether the federal government will hold a binding referendum in November. Vieques residents were to have had the option of seeing the Navy leave by May 1, 2003.

Yet now, with his loyalties divided, not only is the tone of Rivera's voice a little different, but you can feel his anxiety as he looks for the right words to explain himself.

"Should the bombing continue on Vieques?" Rivera said, repeating my question.

"I know that our tempers our hot," he said. "I know that there are many people, including me, who would like to take some kind of revenge.

But the truth is that the struggle for Vieques, after 61 years of bombings . . . is not finished."

He chooses his words carefully, telling you that since Sept. 11 he has been consoling the victims of terrorism and that he is proud that his fellow anti-Navy protesters in Vieques have called a moratorium on civil disobedience to show solidarity with the terror attack victims in New York.

He tells you that the people who have been exposed to the environment of southern Manhattan in the last three weeks may now be facing the same health hazards as the people of Vieques. He tells you that he went to a service for the victims, but that while leaving the church, he spotted a young woman carrying a sign that said "Peace for Vieques."

Yet Rivera's fellow protesters are a bit more militant than he is.

In a statement released from Vieques, they say their "solidarity is directed toward the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks and not toward the militaristic actions of the U.S. government." They say they are already planning new rounds of civil disobedience to stop Navy exercises on Vieques.

The United States hasn't even lit a firecracker and already the Vieques protesters are saying they "could never support or applaud the terrorism of aircraft carriers launching missiles against hospitals, schools, against populated cities, in the name of vengeance and of a democracy that in Vieques is stepped upon by the U.S. Navy."

They say they "energetically reject terrorism, war, and any type of violence as a means to resolve conflicts in our world." They say they "do not want to be used for preparing wars in the 21st century."

As a New York politician, Rivera takes a different, more diplomatic approach.

"I find it very strange that we are still thinking that the only place these military exercises can be conducted is in Vieques," Rivera said. "It's not true. There are islands off the coast of Florida where the Navy could do it."

Puerto Rico Gov. Sila Maria Calderon, who supports the current commonwealth relationship between Puerto Rico and the United State, has been able to maintain a moderate balance between those who want independence for Puerto Rico (and most adamantly demand the Navy get out of Vieques) and those who want Puerto Rico to become the 51 state of the Union (and are most likely to support the Navy).

But now that there is a possibility the Navy might stay in Vieques after 2003, even Calderon is sounding like Rivera, choosing her words carefully, but still calling for an exit date.

"Our position has to be based on a dramatically different reality, which is the national unity against terrorism," Calderon told reporters in Washington. She said she sees "a real threat" that some lawmakers will want to let the Navy stay in Vieques indefinitely an option she finds unacceptable.

Rivera said he always felt the Navy would try to find an excuse to stay in Vieques. And now there is a great excuse, an attack on his hometown, on some of Rivera's own constituents.

"The problem is that in the past, promises have not been kept," Rivera said. "We are convinced that it doesn't matter what the Puerto Ricans do. Whether we hold elections or referendums, whether we say the Navy should leave or stay, nobody pays attention.

"Who suffers?" he said rhetorically. "Democracy, which is convenient for those in power to make a point, but inconvenient when the people of Vieques express themselves."

Torn between two causes, Rivera still knows how to defend himself.


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