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Unified Call to U.S. Navy to Leave Vieques

Berríos' Trial Reflects Unified Call to U.S. Navy to Leave Vieques

* Pressure continues for the U.S. to take definitive action to end the use of the "target" island of Vieques. Refusing to do this could be a tragic mistake, because the situation throughout Puerto Rico remains simmering due to a now united political culture on this issue. The result of the two-day trial of Rubén Berríos Martínez, leader of the island's independence movement as well as the Vieques protests, clearly illustrates the island's sentiment.

For a people normally polarized by highly politicized debate over its relationship with the United States, Puerto Ricans have exhibited an unusual amount of solidarity surrounding the U.S. Navy's continued occupation of Vieques. For more than a year, Puerto Rico has made clear its resolve that the Navy should stop its live ammunition training practices on the island. This was most recently exhibited in Berríos June 13 trial, which has highlighted the fact that support for his cause is nearly universal, persuading the U.S. Department of Justice to recognize, if not respect, the will of the majority and the power of his influence over Vieques' residents as well as other Puerto Ricans.

Berríos, the president and gubernatorial candidate of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), illegally entered U.S. Navy property (which consists of two-thirds of the acreage of the 21-mile long island) on May 10, just six days after federal marshals evicted him and 215 other protesters from the island. Following its initial raid, the Justice Department threatened protesters with up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine if they trespassed again, but after Berríos was picked up a second time, President Clinton underscored the U.S. government's seriousness by sanctioning the increase of the maximum punishment for such crimes to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

However, a number of federal officials of Puerto Rican descent who were involved with the Berríos trial have seemingly disagreed with the federal government's stand on the issue. Before the trial even began, the previous federal judge assigned to hear the case stepped down because, according to PIP Senator Manuel Rodríguez Orellana, "she basically agreed with the actions of the accused." There then followed a less than passionate prosecution of the crime, in which the federal prosecutor, Jorge Vega Pacheco, failed to even go through the paces of recommending a sentence. Berríos did not offer a defense because he refused to recognize the legitimacy of the court. After the hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Juan Pérez Giménez expressed his commitment to the democratic right to protest, and sentenced Berríos to six hours in jail, far less than the judge's superiors on the mainland likely would have recommended.

Berríos' statement that "the sentence speaks for itself" could be accurate, in that it demonstrates that the Navy's days in Vieques "are numbered." The Berríos trial was symbolic of the widespread consensus among Puerto Ricans across the political spectrum, that the Navy should leave the island in a timely fashion and that no limited-use formula to maintain the continued occupation of the island for military purposes will be tolerated. Berríos repeatedly has argued that the core of the issue is the U.S. government's refusal to recognize the political will of the 3.8 million Puerto Ricans - all U.S. citizens - and it is time for Washington to affirm its commitment to authentic democracy. At the very least, the U.S. must honor its commitment by holding the referendum it proposed in a deal crafted by the Clinton administration and the mainstream Puerto Rican political leadership, in which the residents of Vieques vote on the Navy's future status on the island. Those voters almost certainly will cast ballots to evict the Navy, with broad support coming from the main island of Puerto Rico - optimistic that at the last moment, the Navy will recognize that untrammeled use of Puerto Rican territory for U.S. national security purposes is no longer tenable.

By Taylor Mammen, COHA research associate

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-partisan and tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the floor of the Senate as being "one of the nation's most respected body of scholars and policy makers."

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