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14 July 2000

Justice for Residents of Vieques
WCC in support of Puerto Rican Island

The World Council of Churches (WCC) called 12 July for United Nations (UN) action "in support of decolonization of Puerto Rico".

A statement delivered on behalf of the WCC's Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) to the UN Committee on Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples also asked for assistance to Puerto Ricans in securing justice for residents of Vieques, one of the smaller islands of Puerto Rico just east of the main island.

The statement was presented by Eunice Santana, a Disciples of Christ minister and former WCC president who directs the Caribbean Institute of Ecumenical Formation and Action in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

Speaking in Spanish, Santana said the decade for the elimination of colonialism, launched by the UN in 1990, had ended without a solution for Puerto Rico, and left one of humanity's "most disgraceful" situations.

She reminded the Committee that she had drawn its attention to Vieques in delivering WCC statements in 1998 and 1999, and said actions of the United States Navy there in the past 15 months showed a continuing lack of regard for the rights of the Puerto Rican people.

Hundreds of Puerto Ricans camped out in the restricted part of Vieques used by the US Navy since 1941 for practice operations, risking their lives as human shields, and many of them, including a bishop and dozens of clergy, were arrested, she said. The protesters were inspired by the liberation experience revealed in the Bible, she told the UN.

Last November, CCIA director Dwain C. Epps wrote to president Bill Clinton in support of the protests. And on 2 May, when plans for the arrests had been announced, WCC general secretary Konrad Raiser said in a follow-up letter that such arrests "will hardly be understood by the churches", and urged that Clinton "call a halt to this intervention immediately". However, the protesters were arrested two days later.

Santana said a referendum proposed by the US Navy to let the people of Vieques decide whether to accept US Dollars 40 million for its use of the disputed area for three years or US Dollars 50 million for permanent use was a bad joke. She said this would require the people to sell their conscience, and excluded the option most people would prefer - immediate departure of the Navy.

She appealed for a "legitimate process of self-determination by the Puerto Rican people". And she appealed for the UN Committee's help in getting the United States to end bombardment of Vieques, clean up the area, compensate the people of Vieques for the damages they have suffered and return the area to them.

As the UN Committee heard a series of speakers, it had before it a resolution introduced by Cuba asserting that initiatives previously taken had "failed to set in motion the process of decolonization of Puerto Rico", and noting "with satisfaction" that proposals had been made for a "sovereign Constituent Conference of the people of Puerto Rico".

Referring to Puerto Ricans convicted of violent protest actions in the United States, the resolution welcomed the release of 11 of them last year, and called on Clinton to "release all Puerto Rican political prisoners".

Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898. Puerto Ricans were made citizens of the United States in 1917, and later gained the right to elect their own governor and legislature, and to send a non-voting representative to the US House of Representatives. But they do not vote in US elections or pay US taxes.

In a 1993 referendum, 48 per cent of Puerto Rican voters favoured retaining their current "commonwealth" status, 44 per cent becoming a state of the United States, and 4 per cent independence. However, some Puerto Ricans say the referendum did not resolve the Puerto Rican issue because of the way political parties were involved, and a new approach such as a Constituent Conference is needed.

The WCC statement to the UN Committee did not endorse the Cuban resolution, but Santana said afterwards it was compatible with the WCC position. And she reported that she was "very happy" when the committee approved the resolution by consensus at the end of the day's hearings. Similar resolutions were adopted in previous years, but always by divided votes, she said.

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.