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1999 NCC News Archives

"Mauricio Amilcar Lopez" Award to People of Vieques, Puerto Rico,
Highlights Need to Depoliticize Human Rights Struggles
Church Leaders Draw Attention to Decades-Long "David and Goliath" Story

By Wendy McDowell

Daily life for the fishing community whose home is Puerto Rico's balmy Vieques island usually is punctuated by the whir of helicopters and the explosion of shells -- launched by U.S. Navy ships and planes conducting military exercises that have used the island for target practice over the past 50 years.

But Vieques, a 30-minute flight southeast from San Juan, was uncharacteristically quiet on December 17, the day an international group sponsored by the National Council of Churches presented a human rights award honoring the decades-long struggle against the U.S. Navy occupation of some four-fifths of the island's 33,000 acres.

Islanders speculated that the lull in the usual cacaphony was due to the U.S. strikes against Iraq, pulling the Navy from its exercises to engage in the real thing. They noted the irony that it takes a war somewhere else to allow a moment of peace and quiet in their own land.

"We heard they were preparing for the Gulf, so it was very busy, then all at once it became quiet," said Radames Tirado, a former mayor of Vieques. He is the brother of "Lula" Tirado, whom the NCC honored posthumously for her part in the struggle to persuade the U.S. Navy to leave Vieques. "We do not get many days of quiet here."

"The people of Vieques have not known a lasting peace since 1940," when the U.S. began to use the island for military exercises and test shellings, explained the Rev. Dr. Rodney Page, NCC Associate General Secretary and Executive Director of Church World Service and Witness, New York, who was part of the delegation.

Decades of military exercises have left thousands of craters and cracked houses and disrupted the local fishing industry. "Locals like to say that Vieques has more craters than the moon," said the Rev. Oscar Bolioli, Director of the NCC's Latin American and the Caribbean Office, New York.

Struggle is "David and Goliath" Story

Fishers and other inhabitants of the island began organizing in the late 1960s and '70s to get the U.S. Navy to withdraw, employing tactics like placing their small, fragile boats in the path of warships and lining the shore with a human chain so that the ships could not land. Many protesters were arrested and there were reports of police brutality. A young man, Angel Rodriguez Cristobal, died in prison, further galvanizing the movement.

"My first image of Vieques was a newspaper picture showing a fisherman with a bow and arrow shooting at a monstrous navy boat," said Bishop Rafael Malpica Padilla, Chairperson of the NCC's Committee on the Caribbean and Latin America (CCLA). He is the Latin America and Caribbean Director for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Chicago. "That image has always reminded me of the biblical story of David fighting Goliath."

It is because of the "David vs. Goliath" nature of the story that the NCC granted the award to the people of Vieques.

The award is named for Mauricio Lopez, a professor and ecumenical leader from Buenos Aires. "He became a martyr of the ecumenical movement in the region after he was kidnapped and assassinated by a military commando in Argentina in 1977," Rev. Bolioli said. "It seemed only fitting to honor a group of fishermen and local people who have confronted a big power in a nonviolent way in order to defend their livelihood and their natural resources."

"Four people were chosen who represent all the people of Vieques," Rev. Bolioli said: Ismael Guadalupe, longtime activist; Carlos Zenon and Carlos Ventura, past and present representatives of fishermens' organizations, and Luz Delia Tirado ("Lula"), from the Vieques Women's Sector (Posthumous Award - she died of cancer this past year).

The NCC's CCLA created the Mauricio Amilcar Lopez Human Rights Award in 1995 to recognize people carrying out exceptional work for justice in Latin America and the Caribbean. Dr. Carlos Reina, Former President of Honduras and current President of the Central American Parliament was the first recipient in 1996 and attended this year's celebration. Argentine Methodist Bishop Federico Pagura was the 1997 recipient.

Church Leaders Stress Need to Depoliticize Human Rights

"The CCLA chose to recognize the people of Vieques this particular year because this is the centennial of the U.S. invasion in Puerto Rico," said Bishop Padilla. Yet the church leaders repeatedly stated that they do not wish to intervene in the internal politics of Puerto Rico, but only to highlight the strong case of the people of Vieques.

"Although there is always the tendency to make this cause a political act, for those of us conferring the award, a group which includes pastors and church members, the struggle of the people of Vieques is a human rights struggle," Bishop Padilla said. "It is a struggle for the dignity of the people, for people's control over their own economic and social growth so they can have better health and education."

The need to depoliticize this and all struggles for human rights was echoed again and again in the awards ceremony and worship services which took place December 16 and 17 in San Juan and on Vieques.

Bishop Francisco Sosa of the ELCA's Caribbean Synod, who has a church in San Juan, stressed in a sermon that taking a stand for the people of Vieques is a Christian act. "It is not a political act, but an act of peace and justice to support our brothers and sisters in Vieques," he said. "Every human being must face God's judgment. We must speak out for those who are oppressed and tortured and speak to those who oppress and give them a chance to repent."

"The problem here in Puerto Rico is that speaking out at all automatically pits you against the government," explained Bishop David Alvarez, Episcopal Church, San Juan. He explained that every statement is immediately analyzed in terms of where the speaker stands on the status of Puerto Rico.

The issue was particularly conspicuous the week this award was given, since it was only days earlier that Puerto Ricans cast ballots in a U.S.-backed plebiscite about the future of the commonwealth. Although the Dec. 13 plebiscite was non-binding, U.S. and Puerto Rican politicians were said to be keeping a close eye on the outcome, which resulted in a majority opting for the "none of the above" category. There were five choices on the ballot: remaining a commonwealth, becoming a state, becoming a free associated state, becoming an independent nation, and none of the above.

Political analysts have interpreted this result in a number of ways, but Bishop Alvarez said many people believe it was a statement that the plebiscite was poorly timed, taking place so soon after Hurricane Georges.

In the case of Vieques, Bishop Alvarez said, whether Puerto Rico is a U.S. state, commonwealth or independent nation should not be the issue. "No matter what the status of Puerto Rico, what has happened and continues to happen to the people of Vieques should not be allowed to occur," he stressed.

"We are all political people," Bishop Alvarez further explained, "so I do not mean that the church or its members should be beyond politics. But the church needs to speak from a place that is beyond partisanship." The awardees, all lifelong residents of Vieques, concurred. "Party politics have been the cause of so much pain in Vieques," said Mr. Tirado.

"The struggle itself has lost a lot of steam and its best ideas because of partisan politics," said Carlos Zenon, former President of the Fishermens' Association who was one of the leaders of the struggle in the '70s.

"Our struggle is not a political struggle, but one for dignity," said Ismael Guadalupe of the Rescue and Development Committee for Vieques, one of the stalwart activists on the island. "It has become a crime to breathe our own air because it is not our own anymore. People get cancer at a higher rate" than do residents of mainland Puerto Rico. "The army has marched into civilian areas and killed people. Meanwhile, the Puerto Rican government has used Vieques as a cornerstone of (U.S.) government projects."

Likewise, Bishop Alvarez said, people do not have to be pro-independence to support the rights of Puerto Rican political prisoners who have been unfairly or disproportionately detained. "There are 16 Puerto Rican political prisoners in the U.S. who have been detained for longer periods than others for the same crimes and have received longer probations," he said. "This is also a human rights issue."

Church leaders and Vieques residents said they look for a time when human rights will drive politics and not vice versa. "Unfortunately, human rights always gets mixed with politics," said Dr. Reina. "I believe for the next millennium, the standard for all leaders should be someone who believes in justice."

Recipients Hope Award Will Reinvigorate Struggle

According to awardees, the struggle in Vieques was alive and well into the 1980s and has only flagged since Hurricane Hugo devastated the island in 1989 and attention turned to rebuilding. "Hurricane Hugo revealed the underlying poverty in Vieques, just as Hurricane Mitch is doing in Honduras and Nicaragua," said Rev. Bolioli. About 70 percent of Vieques' 8,200 inhabitants live under the poverty level and 50 percent are jobless, he reported.

But the awardees expressed the hope that the NCC's award will reinvigorate the struggle. "I hope in the next millennium, thanks to this award, people will know that Vieques can be free," said Ismael Guadalupe.

"This award will recharge the people of Vieques," said Mr. Zenon. "Their memories have nothing to do with party politics. This is a struggle of the people." Said Carlos Ventura, leader of the Vieques Fishermen's Rights Committee, "This award will uplift the people who have been tortured throughout the years."

For their part, the church leaders visiting agreed to bring the story back to their own lands. "This will make an echo in the churches of the NCC and the people of the Caribbean," said Rev. Moises Rosas, General Secretary of the Evangelical Council of Churches of Puerto Rico, San Juan. "This is a struggle for all of Puerto Rico and for all of Latin America."

Dr. Reina said he had not known the story of Vieques before this trip, but promised to bring it back to Honduras. "We must continue to proclaim this struggle so that the whole world will know the experience of the people of Vieques," he said.

Attorney Noemi Espinoza from Honduras, Vice-Chairperson of the CCLA, stressed the role of women in the Vieques struggle and said she would keep the story in her heart and share it as she goes about ministering to the tragedy in her own country wrought by Hurricane Mitch.

Other participants in the two days of celebration included: Rev. Felix Ortiz, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Puerto Rico; Bishop Juan Vera Mendez, United Methodist Church, Puerto Rico; and Mrs. Wanda Colon, Coordinator for the Caribbean Project on Justice and Peace, based in San Juan.

At least two of the award recipients said they planned to bequeath the awards – each received a plaque and a cross made of Honduran wood -- to the Fuerte Conde de Mirasol Museum in Vieques so that all the people of the island, especially youth, could see it.

In the museum, where the awards ceremony was held, there was an exhibit by artist Juan Angel Silva, who was born and grew up on the island of Vieques. The visiting church leaders and awardees alike were drawn to his paintings, many which take on political subjects.

At one point, several people were gathered around one allegorical painting which shows a blindfolded man perilously poised on a tightrope between two sides representing Puerto Rican statehood and independence. Everyone uttered sounds of recognition and resonance.

The people of Vieques know this tightrope well, but continue to hope for a time when they can walk on solid ground again, free of craters in their earth, military planes in their sky, and warships in their sea. They pray for a day when they will not have to feel guiltily relieved because a war somewhere else has granted them a temporary peace.

-end-

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