PUERTO RICO CHURCH LEADERS SEEK MEETING WITH CLINTON ABOUT VIEQUES
NCC Takes Request to White House Following Visit to Puerto Rico, Including Vieques, June 1-3
June 13, 2000, WASHINGTON, D.C. - All six members of a National Council of Churches delegation that visited Puerto Rico June 1-3 carried a request from Puerto Rico's church leaders to the White House on Monday (June 12) for a meeting with President Clinton about Vieques.
"The President has met with Puerto Rico's governor and with the Marines, but he has not talked with Puerto Rico's spiritual leaders, who are the moral authority and who have the trust of the people," said the Rev. Dr. Robert W. Edgar, NCC General Secretary, the delegation's head.
"Puerto Rico's mainline and evangelical Protestant, Roman Catholic and Pentecostal church leaders have joined forces in an unprecedented ecumenical coalition against continued use of Vieques for U.S. military exercises," Dr. Edgar reported. "They are giving leadership on this issue with passion and conviction, working to keep the struggle peaceful and on a high moral plane.
"It is important that President Clinton hear their concerns," Dr. Edgar said. "Government should hear the concerns of several sides. It also is important that the leaders of the churches hear from the President himself the rationale of his position."
The NCC delegation's meeting June 12 was with three White House staff members: Jeffrey Farrow, Co-Chair, President's Interagency Task Force on Puerto Rico; Maria Echaveste, Deputy Chief of Staff, and Maureen Shea, Special Assistant to the President for Public Liaison.
Dr. Edgar said the delegation reported on its June 1-3 visit to Puerto Rico and showed a brief video - produced by Puerto Rico's government - of the destruction resulting from U.S. military use of Vieques.
DETAILS, NCC DELEGATION VISIT TO PUERTO RICO
"Not one more bomb in Vieques" is the unanimous message of Puerto Rico's churches, which also judge as "immoral" the terms of the proposed plebiscite on continued U.S. military presence, the NCC delegation reported upon return from Puerto Rico.
The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps recently resumed using Vieques for military training exercises after clearing out protestors who had occupied the bombing ranges for a year after a civilian was killed by a bomb.
The government of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Navy and President Clinton have agreed on a plebiscite - date to be announced - offering the people of Vieques a choice between two alternatives.
Under the first, the Navy would "cease all training on Vieques and leave the island by May 1, 2003." Under the second, training would continue on Vieques on terms to be presented at least three months before the vote - with a promised bonus of $50 million for enhancement of infrastructure and housing on the Western portions of Vieques.
The Rev. Heriberto Martinez, General Secretary of the Evangelical Council of Churches, which represents most evangelical and some mainline Puerto Rican churches, told the NCC delegation, "This is not an acceptable choice. We don't want to see one more bomb on Vieques."
He and other church leaders declared the terms of the plebiscite to be immoral because they don't offer the choice of an immediate cessation of the bombing. Puerto Rican theologian Dr. Samuel Silva Gotay dramatized the point by offering a simile. He said it's like a judge offering a battered woman this choice - either her husband may continue to beat her for three more years, at which point he must stop, or he may continue to beat her indefinitely.
Besides Dr. Edgar, the NCC delegation included the Rev. Canon Brian Grieves, Director of Peace and Justice Ministries of The Episcopal Church, New York, and a member of the NCC/Church World Service and Witness Unit Committee; the Rev. Dr. Nozomi Ikuta, Minister for Liberation Ministries, United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, Cleveland; the Rev. Dr. Leslie F. Weber, Jr., Associate Executive Director, Division for Church in Society, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Chicago; Ms. Rebecca Cruz, former chair of the NCC Inclusiveness and Justice Standing Committee, of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Chicago, and the Rev. Oscar Bolioli, NCC/CWSW Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, New York.
The many church and community leaders with whom the NCC delegation met included: the six-member Evangelical Council of Churches' group headed by the Rev. Martinez; Roman Catholic Archbishop Alvaro Corrada del Rio, whose Caguas jurisdiction includes Vieques; Caribbean Lutheran Synod Bishop Francisco Sosa, Episcopal Church Bishop David Alvarez, and Dr. Lester McGrath of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a seminary professor.
The delegation also met with Vieques community leaders, including Carlos Zenon and Ismael Guadalupe, two of four persons selected by the NCC two years ago to receive the Council's "Mauricio Amilcar Lopez Human Rights Award" on behalf of the people of the island of Vieques. "It was an emotional reunion," said the Rev. Bolioli. "The conversation was intense, and some were crying. We concluded by praying together."
Others met included representatives of the Puerto Rico's academic and professional community, and of CWS-supported projects in Puerto Rico, including one that has documented the U.S. military's damage to the Vieques ecology.
The NCC delegation also went to the gate of a U.S. Navy bombing range on Vieques to give encouragement to the local people. Some 100-150 people continue to demonstrate every weekend in protest of the resumption of military exercises there. There they met Ismael Guadalupe, Jr., a Vieques community leader who was seriously beaten by U.S. military, and Casimar and Pedro Zenon, who go on trial June 7 for participating in the protests on Vieques. They are sons of Carlos Zenon, President, Vieques Fishermen.
"I am impressed that given that the issue of U.S. military use of Vieques is so emotional, the people of Vieques continue to exercise restraint and are making a tremendous effort to keep their protests non-violent," Dr. Edgar commented. "The churches reaffirmed to us that this is a peaceful struggle."
Note: At the White House meeting, the staff repeated the same story they gave us (a group of religious leaders from Washington) during a meeting held in May urging us to support their Congressional efforts towards the Presidential derectives. It is impresive to see that at least they have been very consistent in their denials and President Clinton's lack of political will to challenge the Navy on behalf of the people of Vieques, PR.