In Puerto Rico these days, religion is on the rise. Just when the populace seems fed up with partisan politics and turned off by the endless stream of scandals coming from indicted public officials, the churches and church leaders seem to have found the right formula for inspiring Puerto Ricans. This is not just a case of more people going to church. Public respect for religious spokespersons has increased; they speak both for more people and to larger numbers of Puerto Ricans. Increased attention to religious leaders seems to have come at the expense of the politicians in Puerto Rican society, and the march in San Juan of 120,000 people on Feb. 21 for the cause of peace surpassed any political event in the history of the island.
The catalyst for this new visibility of religion in the public forum has been Vieques, an island east of Puerto Rico less than 21 miles long and 5 miles wide, with a total population of less than 10,000 people. In the aftermath of a killing on April 18, 1999, when an F-18 Navy jet from the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy launched a bomb that fell on Puerto Rican civilians, a solid majority of Puerto Ricans demanded a halt to the target practice that the Navy has been conducting on Vieques since 1941. Days later, bolstered by public opinion, nearly 100 local residents and prominent community leaders encamped on Navy property in a defiant act of civil disobedience. Ignoring the Navy’s arguments that battleships, cruisers, airplanes and amphibious landings can practice coordinated maneuvers only on Vieques, President Clinton ordered an end to the maneuvers until an investigation could be conducted and recommendations made to him for a permanent solution to the festering problem.
While the investigation was still underway, in the summer of 1999 the Puerto Rican Senate endorsed the presence among the protesters of a fellow Senator, Ruben Berríos, a veteran of protests against the Navy and head of the island’s independence party. (Subsequently Berriós was elected in absentia to be president of the Socialist International by his peers, who include Tony Blair of Great Britain and Lionel Jospin of France.) The peaceful occupation of the target beaches has now become a badge of honor as hundreds of people take turns to defy the military use of Vieques. The out-going governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Roselló, joined in the clamor against the Navy, repeating in Washington the slogan, "Ni un tiro más!" ("Not one more bomb!"). Had the governor been in favor of independence for Puerto Rico, as is Senator Berríos, the plea might easily have been dismissed as political rhetoric. But Governor Roselló has avidly fostered statehood, so his stance, which lasted through several rounds of negotiations into the New Year, solidified public opinion behind the idea that the Navy’s bombing of an inhabited island had crossed a moral boundary and was not acceptable.
It is unusual to see the people and the political parties of Puerto Rico so united in a common cause. Usually opinions split along lines that parallel the three options for the island’s political future: independence, assimilation as a state or autonomy under the U.S. flag. Why has public opposition grown so strong this time? After all, Vieques has experienced fatal accidents before, and the Navy has practiced landings on its beaches in preparation for virtually every combat since World War II. This time, however, the moral mobilization of the churches has been a major difference. To their credit, the mainline Protestant churches have been in the forefront of a decades-long effort to force the U.S. Navy out of Vieques. The new player in this issue is the Catholic Church of Puerto Rico, which has often been reluctant to risk a foray into political issues.
The new stance on Catholic social justice has been animated by the installation of a 49-year-old Franciscan archbishop from the United States, Roberto O. González Nieves. He instantly allied himself with the articulate Jesuit bishop, Alvaro Corrada del Río, the Puerto Rican church’s acknowledged champion of civic engagement. Currently administrator of the Diocese of Caguas, to which Vieques belongs, Bishop Corrada del Río has personally visited the site of the Navy bombing and celebrated Mass on Vieques for those engaged in civil disobedience, mobilizing many parishes to become part of the civil disobedience movement.
As a consequence of the church’s entry into this issue, politicians have begun to speak the language of the Gospel. "What would Jesus Christ do in circumstances like what’s happening on Vieques?" asked Carlos Vizcarrondo, a member of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives. "Jesus would be on the front lines," said Vizcarrondo, answering his own question. Even the normally apolitical Evangelical and Pentecostal churches have joined the movement. As represented by the Biblical Society of Puerto Rico, members of these congregations organized the impressive demonstration held on Feb. 21. The massive numbersthe largest demonstration in the history of the islandoffer evidence that Catholics and Protestants have united behind this common cause. In the process, public opinion has assumed a tone of moral indignation against the compromise of principles that is the usual form of business among government leaders. With the loss of officialdom’s credibility, people are more likely to believe earlier reports that the Navy stored nuclear weapons on Vieques, tested napalm there and used depleted uranium bullets.
But while the politics on the island called for the Navy’s complete withdrawal, in Washington matters went in a contrary direction. When Congress reconvened in the fall of 1999, conservative Republicans began denouncing Puerto Ricans as ingrates who did not appreciate the demands of national defense. Wary of an election year trap charging that Democrats were "soft on national defense," in the middle of January 2000 the White House summoned Governor Roselló for a "discussion." Suddenly, the governor’s slogan of "Not one more bomb!" disappeared. An agreement was announced ordering $40 million to the 10,000 residents of Vieques in compensation for three years of maneuvers with inert ammunition. The presidential order includes the requirement that a referendum be conducted among the residents of Vieques, who will be asked to allow the Navy to resume the use of live bombs. To ensure this restoration of military control, the Navy would offer island inhabitants an additional $50 million in "benefits."
The media had scarcely announced the agreement when a schism became apparent between those who see the future of Vieques as a political issue subject to negotiation and those who consider it a life-and-death struggle between the forces of good and evil. For perhaps the first time since the United States invaded the island in 1898, Puerto Rican Catholics, Protestants and Evangelicals have accepted one another as partners in good works, diminishing the need to engage in the polemics of the past that sometimes produced shrill exchanges and accusations. The dramatic revolution in interdenominational cooperation can be measured by the "conversion" of the outspoken and ultra-conservative preacher, Jorgé Raschke. He is the Puerto Rican equivalent of the Reverend Bob Jones, and has frequently lapsed into extremist denunciations of Catholicism, the papacy and Marian devotions. Nonetheless, on the matter of Vieques, he joined with the Catholic bishops in calling the Roselló-Clinton deal "an immoral act of abuse of power," words that echo the pronouncements of the Catholic bishops and many Protestant leaders.
In retaliation, the pro-Navy forces have attacked the religious leaders as "separatists" and begun a not-so-subtle attack focused on the Catholic Church. Bishop Corrada del Río was denounced by a member of the Puerto Rican legislature in a letter to Pope John Paul II. The prelate responded by insisting that it is not correct to suppose that "the discourse of political parties and government officials is the only one that can exist or be given legitimacy in the public space which is Puerto Rico."
Criticism from the Catholic Church in Puerto Rico and its newly established ecumenical partners is not the shrill ranting and raving of isolated clerics or disgruntled rump groups. Even the call to civil disobedience comes in the measured cadences of scholastic philosophy. As explained by Archbishop González Nieves, the church does not tell its members to disobey the laws of the United States regarding Vieques or to discard the agreement with Washington; the church simply admits that grounds for making such decisions exist. Therefore, in the freedom that the Catholic Church affords the individual conscience in matters not directly related to doctrine, each Catholic may decide for himself or herself whether to disobey the decree to begin bombing Vieques again.
A petulant Governor Roselló upped the political ante when he called for "religious disobedience" to the bishops. He warned the public that the bishops tolerated the "immoral" exclusion of women from the Catholic priesthood and therefore should not be trusted in political matters. The governor’s effort to divert attention from the Vieques issue seems, however, to have failed.
The government of Puerto Rico is now faced with the nearly impossible task of selling the sell-out on Vieques to a populace virtually united in moral opposition, if not to the compromise, certainly to the high-handed manner in which it was imposed. The White House considers the agreement signed by Governor Roselló to be a done deal, but there still remains the not inconsequential matter of removing more than 100 protesters from the bombing site. The protesters have vowed to stay in an act of civil disobedience to the "colonialism" of both the U.S. and the Puerto Rican governments. Although the property is under federal jurisdiction, Washington wants the Puerto Rican police to remove the protesters. Meanwhile, many church leaders have supported civil disobedience as a fundamental Christian right to "obey God rather than man."
The militancy of the churches in Puerto Rico is part of a worldwide trend traced by José Casanova, a distinguished sociologist at the New School for Social Research in New York City. In his prize-winning book, Public Religions in the Modern World (1994), he has analyzed the public role of religion in several countries like Poland and his native Spain. When the political system is unable to resolve an issue and becomes discredited in the eyes of the people, he has argued, the moral arguments of the churches supply a "religious critique" that becomes a way to form consciences and mobilize public opinion. It might be foolhardy at this point to predict the final results; but in this historic movement against colonialism and militarism, the Catholic Church of Puerto Rico is playing a proud and indispensable role.
Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo is a professor of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and director of the Research Office for Religion in Society and Culture. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.