Institute on Religion and Democracy
January 11, 2000
The campaign to close the U.S. Navy's firing range at Vieques, Puerto Rico includes not only Puerto Rican independence activists but also left-wing church leaders on the mainland United States who support Puerto Rican separatism.
Chief among them has been the United Methodist Church's Council of Bishops, who preside over 8.4 million American Methodists, our country's third largest religious body. Their denomination's missions board, one of America's largest church agencies with assets of over $400 million, has even channeled funding to anti-Navy demonstrators at Vieques.
The Navy facility at Vieques provides the only arena on the East Coast for U.S. naval vessels, planes and marines to test live-fire ammunition. Without it, U.S. seamen and marines will be sent into combat situations without any live-fire training.
For years residents of Vieques have opposed the facility on the island, which is four miles wide and 12 miles long. More recently, the governors and other leaders in Puerto have backed their effort. Their opposition is understandable. Who wants a bombing range in their own neighborhood? Like sewage treatment plants, chemical dumps and power plants, military test ranges are unpleasant for their neighbors. But they have to be located somewhere.
This "not-in-my-back-yard" issue has been transformed into a moral crusade by left-wing secular and religious activists who are anxious to separate Puerto Rico from the United States.
Last April the campaign against the navy at Vieques gained steam when an errant bomb fell on a naval observation post, killing a civilian Navy security guard on the base. The test bombing was temporarily suspended, and demonstrators began camping out on the base to prevent its resumption. The Navy, in its defense, points out that not one person outside the base has ever been harmed over the last 50 years.
The confrontation at Vieques has been complicated by the active involvement of Puerto Rican independence advocates, who comprise a small but highly vocal minority among Puerto Ricans. These advocates portray the navy facility at Vieques as an ugly legacy of U.S. "colonialism."
Joining in this anti-U.S. rhetoric have been U.S. church leaders who are anxious for a new hemispheric cause ever since the demise of Nicaragua's Sandinistas and other Latin American liberationist movements.
The National Council of Churches (NCC), the 5.1 million member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the 8.4 million United Methodist Church have all endorsed Puerto Rican separatism and the closure of the navy facility at Vieques. But leaders of the latter group have especially been in the forefront.
Last Summer, a delegation of Methodist bishops traveled to Vieques to stand in "solidarity" with Vieques protesters who are performing civil disobedience by occupying navy land. Late last year, the demonstrators successfully prevented any training for the Eisehower battleship group, causing it to leave for the Persian Gulf without adequate preparation.
The United Methodist Council of Bishops voted unanimously last Spring to demand that the U.S. Navy cease all operations at Vieques and transfer all its land there to the Puerto Rican government. Bishop Herbert Skeete compared the Vieques struggle to the Civil Rights movement. "The challenge then is the same as we have here," he insisted. "It is more than the military. It is a matter of justice."
The United Methodist Board of Global Ministries has granted $5,000 in support of the illegal demonstrations at Vieques, which include local Protestants and Catholics. The local Catholic bishop has labeled the navy presence at Vieques "a sign of the anti-reign of God" and has called for Puerto Rico to be liberated from its current supposed state of "militarization."
This kind of rhetoric excites left-leaning U.S. church leaders, many of whom were instrumental in the amnesty for over a dozen Puerto Rican pro-independence terrorists last year. The National Council of Churches has shifted its focus from freeing the terrorists to fighting the navy presence in Puerto Rico.
"The people of Vieques have not known a lasting peace since 1940," complained the Rev. Rodney Paige, who heads the NCC's Church World Service unit. "This is a time to declare and renew our support as the struggle is again galvanized."
Bishop Rafael Malpia Padilla is an officer with the NCC and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Ameica (ELCA). On behalf of the NCC, he presented a "human rights" award to the people of Vieques last year, to honor them for their "David and Goliath" struggle on the 100th anniversary of the U.S. "invasion" of Puerto Rico. In December Bishop H. George Anderson, president of the ELCA, asked President Clinton to shut down the navy facility as soon as possible.
Clinton has rejected calls for the facility's immediate closure but has proposed closing it within five years, with dummy munitions replacing live-fire in the interim. Some congressmen say they will strongly oppose any closure. "The bottom line is, we are denying training to people who are putting their lives on the line," said Senator John Warner, who vowed to fight for the navy in Vieques.
Other defenders of the Navy facility at Vieques say it is irreplaceable because it is geographically unique, is relatively isolated from commercial traffic, has water deep enough for aircraft carriers, has been instrumental in training military personnel for every major U.S. military engagement since World War II, and has more than $3 billion invested in its facilities and equipment.
Although demonstrators continue their illegal occupation of the navy facility, the navy plans to resume target practice in February or March. Liberal Protestant bishops from the states, more concerned about fighting U.S. "colonialism" than reversing the sagging fortunes of their own declining denominations, will surely stand with them.