The dawn of a new century found Puerto Rico in a heated contest with the U.S. military over its Navy base in Vieques. For years the military had been using the island for bombing practice and ammunitions storage. But in 1999, civilian David Sanes was accidentally killed by a bomb in Vieques, which set off an organized protest effort that raged for several years and grew stronger in numbers through time. The military finally relented, pulling out of Vieques in 2003. Without the base in Vieques, the U.S. Navy decided it didn’t need the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Ceiba, and it was closed in 2004, taking with it its estimated $250 million-a-year infusion into the local economy. With Ramey Air Force Base having closed in the mid-1970s, Fort Buchanan is the last remaining U.S. military base on the island.
The independence movement in Puerto Rico has long since abandoned its violent ways, and in truth, only 5 percent of the population wants independence. But every once in a while, something occurs that reminds islanders of the movement’s presence and its bloody history. As recently as 2005, the FBI killed—some say ambushed—Los Macheteros organizer Filiberto Ojeda Ríos in a shoot-out at his home in Hormigueros. The 72-year-old man was the ringleader in the 1983 Wells Fargo attack and had evaded authorities ever since. To some, the fact that Ojeda was killed on September 23—a holiday honoring the independence movement’s 1868 uprising against Spain—seemed to send a clear reminder to independenistas that their past activities had not been forgotten.
The single most defining characteristic of Puerto Rico’s political climate today is the decades-old debate over whether it should remain a territory of the United States, become a state, or achieve independence. Which way the tides would turn were residents given the opportunity to decide their fate is anyone’s guess, since popular opinion is equally divided between pro-Commonwealth and pro-statehood stances.
© Suzanne Van Atten from Moon Puerto Rico, 2nd Edition