Al Sharpton brought celebrity to the struggle in Vieques, and George Pataki made it mainstream. Journalist Mario Murillo, in his concise and heartfelt book, Islands of Resistance, describes the movement behind the headlines. “The colonial arrogance of the United States as well as the ignorance of its political, economic, and media elite, has provided fuel to the resistance of a people who refuse to let go of the centuries-old dream of true self-determination,” he writes. The U.S. maintains an imperial control over the islands to serve its military, economic, and political interests, Murillo argues. But more than 100 years of native discontent has its consequences. It’s getting harder, Murillo promises, to keep Puerto Rico in its place.
To outsiders, he observes, 1999 marked the beginning of serious tensions between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Bill Clinton, to accusations of political pandering, granted limited clemency to 11 jailed FALN members; the ensuing criticism resurrected images of Puerto Rican nationalists as crazed terrorists. And the navy in Vieques accidentally dropped a 500-pound bomb on native security guard David Sanes Rodriguez, killing him.
But the trouble really started 101 years earlier, Murillo explains, when the U.S., under the premise of freeing the islands from European imperialists, wrested control from Spain and never let go. The U.S. military focused on Vieques, with its strategically valuable location, as a site for war games. Puerto Rico also provided the ideal climate for expanding the U.S. sugar industry and other sectors of the American economy. And, in the days of mandatory conscription, the islands—where to this day natives can’t vote in U.S. elections—were a source of tens of thousands of fighting bodies.
The internationally reported events of 1999 only crystallized the resentment locals had been feeling for decades. Keeping Puerto Rico in political limbo—not a part of the U.S. but not independent of it—has made it easier for U.S. interests both to exploit the country’s human and geographical resources and to avoid answering for it, Murillo argues.
What’s most moving about Murillo’s work is his palpable desire for Puerto Ricans to transcend traditional political fractures and unify, with the common aim of achieving the greatest good vis-à-vis the U.S. Yet while he engages in a respectful discussion of the pro-statehood and pro-status quo camps, Murillo’s staunchly nationalist heart thumps through this work. “For Vieques and for the people of Puerto Rico,” writes Murillo, “it has never been clearer: This colonial relationship must be terminated.”