BuzzFlash Interviews Congressman Luis Gutierrez
June 20, 2001
BUSH ANNOUNCEMENT ON VIEQUES "IS A SHAM," CONGRESSMAN TELLS BuzzFlash
"But if I need to serve 60 days in jail, in order to stop more years of violence against the people of Vieques, then I think it will be 60 days well served."
The Thursday announcement by President Bush that the Navy will cease bombing the Puerto Rican island of Vieques by May of 2003 is "a sham, and nothing but a public affairs job by the White House," according to United States Congressman Luis Gutierrez. Congressman Gutierrez (4th District, Illinois) was arrested on April 28th as part of a group demonstrating against the Navy's 61-year use of Vieques for bombing practice.
BuzzFlash talked with Congressman Gutierrez on Thursday morning to get his reaction to Bush's statement and its timing.
* * *
BuzzFlash: Are you satisfied with the administration's announcement today that they will phase out the bombing on Vieques Island by May of 2003?
Gutierrez: Our position has always been the Navy should immediately and permanently cease all bombing of the island of Vieques. The American public should understand, this situation would not be tolerated anywhere else in the United States. 9,000 American citizens live on this island. The waters have been polluted. Coral reefs have been destroyed. The damage to the ecology and the environment is of disastrous proportion. They won't let the Environmental Protection Agency go in there to check out what they've done.
Let's remember, they finally have admitted to using uranium in bullets and bombs as they have practiced on an island that is inhabited by families who have lived there for generations. There are higher incidences of cancer among the population on the island. Birth defects are high and the psychological damage of 61 years of constant explosions and the noise that occurs because of these explosions. For 61 years they have bombed this island.
The level of TNT and unexploded munitions- let's remember that when you send a missile, not everything explodes. There are many unexploded bombs. We need to clean it up. We need to take this ecological disaster and clean it up. This is a beautiful sanctuary, a sanctuary where people live.
The main industry there is fishing. That's how people make a livelihood. Let's stop destroying the ecology, the economy, and the environment of the small island of Vieques. They have contributed to our national defense for 61 years. No other place in the United States would allow this to happen. If you tried to do this in Nantucket, or off the cost of the Carolinas, Florida, Texas, it would not be tolerated. Many congressmen keep saying we have to keep the bombing of Vieques. They say this is about being great American patriots. But they won't take military exercises to their congressional districts. They won't share the burden. The burden rests solely on 9000 people who live on Vieques.
But we should be prepared to defend the lives of American citizens and to act in the international community to defend human rights and stop human rights abuses. Yet in Vieques the human rights abuse is being done by the Navy's own hand.
BuzzFlash: The New York Times indicated that Karl Rove was concerned that the continued bombing exercises on Vieques would negatively affect Bush's standing with the Hispanic community. Are you buying any of that?
Gutierrez: Well I think one thing is very clear. In a democracy where people come together the government should respect the wishes of the people. Especially after 61 years of service. Let's remember the governor of Puerto Rico is trying to halt the bombing. The mayor of Vieques was jailed for acting in peaceful civil disobedience. The state legislature, the people of the island, all of the churches -- Methodist, Presbyterian, Protestant of all stripes, Catholics, Pentecostals -- have all come together in an unprecedented effort among the religious community of Puerto Rico. You have the religious society, the legal community, the environmental community, and the political community all unified.
BuzzFlash: You have an upcoming protest planned?
Gutierrez: Well there will be protests initiated. I have a court date on August 29th for my incursion into the restricted area. I will not be returning because a condition of my release was that I don't return to protest. I will be freed of that condition after my trial.
BuzzFlash: Al Sharpton is currently in jail for his protest on Vieques, isn't that right?
Gutierrez: Yes, and three elected officials from New York are in jail. Currently there are 62 other people in jail. Every day more people are sentenced to jail for opposing the bombings. There have been 180 people arrested for protesting the military exercises. About one third have stood trial, and the other two thirds are awaiting trial. The jails are continuing to swell with people who are going to be jailed for peaceful non-violent civil disobedience. This is a misdemeanor charge and yet they are being sent to jail, with no prior criminal record. We think this is punitive. But this is raising the consciousness and awareness in the United States and the international community, and the Navy will leave.
I think that's why we have this quasi-announcement that they're leaving in the year 2003. But let's not be fooled. The only thing that really changes is that they were always supposed to leave in 2003, if the results of the referendum were that people wished them to leave. So 2003 was already a date. And I think they want to avoid the referendum because they want to avoid the embarrassment, humiliation and pressure that will mount after the November referendum, when the Navy will be asked to leave. People will start asking, "Why not leave immediately?" Why hold a referendum and then bomb for two more years?
BuzzFlash: Is the referendum sponsored by the Governor?
Gutierrez: By the Navy. There is another referendum sponsored by the Governor of Puerto Rico. It's sanctioned by the Puerto Rican government, which will take place in July. And I think they're obviously very worried about that referendum.
BuzzFlash: The Navy and the Bush Administration are scared of both of them?
Gutierrez: Yes, both of them. The one that will occur immediately and the one that will occur subsequently in November.
BuzzFlash: And you think both of the referendums will result in landslides for stopping the bombing?
Gutierrez: I believe there will be overwhelming support for the Navy withdrawal. Although the Navy isn't sitting idly by. They have their 40 million dollars. They're making promises to build homes and bridges, everything they can possibly promise to buy the good will of the people of Vieques.
BuzzFlash: Where are the charges against the protestors being tried?
Gutierrez: They're all being tried in federal court, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I will have to return there.
BuzzFlash: Do you think you'll get jail time?
Gutierrez: Well you know something, so far the punishment is 30 to 60 days. There is one federal judge yesterday, who gave a priest a sentence of time served and a $10 fine. That priest and several students testified how they were maced, tear-gassed, while they were handcuffed by the Navy. Being abused by the Navy while they were in Navy custody.
I don't know what my sentence will be. But if I need to serve 60 days in jail, in order to stop more years of violence against the people of Vieques, then I think it will be 60 days well served.
BuzzFlash: I read in the Chicago press, especially your interview with the Sun Times, that the Navy abused you when you were arrested. What do you think was going on? Was it to show you the Navy is in charge?
Gutierrez: I think it is the danger that occurs when you allow the military to basically run what should be in civilian hands. The military should always be under the command of civilians. When you let the military engage civilians, you get a very abusive situation. I think they wanted to be punitive with us. I think they wanted to hand out their treatment as though we were prisoners of war and enemies. Instead of treating us with the respect that should come along from being citizens of this country, who are acting in the great tradition of this country.
I mean think about it. Would women be voting today? Would African Americans have the right to vote, and go to school without segregation? Would children still be in sweatshops? Would we have a 40-hour workday? Think of everything that has changed in this great country of ours because of the actions of those who engaged in civil disobedience. It's a great American tradition that goes back to the founding fathers.
BuzzFlash: When you say there are other protests coming up?
Gutierrez: We understand that there are many people in Puerto Rico lining up to enter into the restricted area and continue the acts of civil disobedience on Monday when the Navy intends to resume the bombing of the island.
BuzzFlash: And what happens in a case like that?
Gutierrez: They will be arrested. The goal is that if enough people can make incursion into their restricted area then they can stop the U.S. Navy from bombing.
BuzzFlash: Do you think the Puerto Rican Hispanic community in the United States and on the island will be in anyway mollified by this announcement by the Bush administration to cease the bombing in May 2003?
Gutierrez: I think people will see this as a sham. And nothing but a public affairs job by the White House. People want peace. The people of Vieques want the bombing of their island to stop immediately and permanently. That is our goal, and we will not rest until they leave.
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