Puerto Rico and Uncle Sam
For the last 101 years, the United States has controlled the political and social life of the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. In that time, the relationship between both countries has been uneasy and unique. In a referendum at the end of last year, Puerto Rican voters, by the narrowest of margins, chose to stay under the protection of the United States rather than become a full state of the Union.
More recently, President Clinton gave clemency to 11 of the 14 Puerto Rican pro-independence prisoners in U.S. jails. Then, at the end of October, a U.S. Defence Department task force recommended a phasing out of the U.S. Navy's use of Vieques island for live bombing exercises, which claimed the life of a local man earlier this year when a bomb went astray. These events have brought the status of Puerto Rico back to the headlines.
The 14 nationalists released by President Clinton on 10 September were convicted of seditious conspirancy against the United States for their participation in the activities of the independence organisation Armed Forces for National Liberation (FALN). That group claimed responsibility for about 130 bombings in America in the early 1980s, which killed six people and injured dozens of others. None of those granted clemency, and who have been imprisoned for the last 19 years on sentences ranging from between 35 and 105 years, had been convicted of crimes that resulted in death or injury.
Clinton's clemency move followed a year-long campaign for the release of the Puerto Rican political prisoners. He later said that his decision came in consideration of the long sentences most had served and folowing appeals by former president Jimmy Carter, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others.
But Clinton's decision was not without controversy. Before the releases, a chorus of police and prison officials, politicians and media editorials had branded the independence fighters as criminals and terrorists and called for the parole offer to be rescinded.
Opponents of Clinton in Congress have since clamoured for the release of documents related to Clinton's decision, criticising him for not heeding FBI opposition. Both the Senate and House of Representatives passed resolutions condemning the move. Clemency opponents, especially Republicans, labeled the offer a bald attempt to win New York's Puerto Rican votes for Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign.
Michael Deutsch, one of the lawyers for the former political prisoners, told the press that the conditions announced by parole authorities in Chicago for the released prisoners are harsher than those set for parolees living in Puerto Rico.
Two prisoners, Oscar López and Antonio Camacho, rejected the government's conditions for parole and remain in jail. Juan Segarra Palmer signed an offer that will make him eligible for release in five years instead of serving a longer term. Haydée Beltrán, who is serving a life sentence, is pursuing a parole separately. She and José Solis, who was sentenced to 51 month in jail last July, were not covered by President Clinton's conditional release offer.
The fact that America has Puerto Rican political prisoners stems from the unresolved question of Puerto Rico's status after 100 years of being, in effect, U.S. territory. For the past 47 years, its status has been as a commonwealth.
Puerto Ricans on the island are U.S. citizens and subject to military service but pay no federal taxes, cannot vote in presidential elections and are represented in Congress by a delegate with no voting powers.
In December, a referendum on the island's status was conducted but its outcome was inconclusive. A narrow majority of 50.2% voted for a category called ``none of the above'' which was put forward as a protest against change, while 46.5% voted to become a fully-fledged American state, which would have mean being subjected to U.S. taxes and giving up such symbols as the right to field an Olympic team. The plebiscite was widely boycotted by groups favouring independence for the island.
The issue of Vieques, however, is currently the biggest threat to the U.S. policy in Puerto Rico. The U.S. Navy has used Vieques as its East Coast firing range for several decades, but was forced to suspend opperations in April after protests when one civilian was killed and four others were hurt when a bomb went off target. In a surprising show of unity, all major politicians, parties and institutions on the island agreed with Governor Pedro Rosello's Special Committee's demands that the shelling be stopped. Uranium-coated and napalm bombs have been dropped within a few miles of homes, schools, hospitals and public parks.
Puerto Rican leaders are bitterly opposed to any more bombing on Vieques Island.
Hunger strike heads for third week
The 20 Basque political prisoners who commenced a hunger strike on 1 November have lost around 10 kilos each.
Eight elected representatives of Basque independence movement Euskal Herritarrok are holding a week-long fast in support of the prisoners. This is the second group of elected pro-independence representatives that has joined the protest for a week to show solidarity.
A new umbrella organisation supporting the 20 Basque prisoners, BATERA, unveiled on Saturday, 13 November, a new campaign aimed at garnering support from all sections of Basque society for the prisoners' struggle. Some of the actions planned include daily demonstrations and pickets in every town in the six provinces of the Basque Country.
The IX Latin American Summit ended on Tuesday 16 November with a condemnation of the United States' economic blockade of Cuba. Prime ministers and representatives from Latin America, Spain and Portugal discussed political and economical issues on the continent, including the peace process in Colombia and the Peace Agreement signed between Peru and Ecuador in 1998.
On the early hours of Tuesday, 16 November, hundreds of men and women occupied farmland owned by Brazilian president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Buritís, Minas Gerais, 200 kilometres east of Brazilia. Lucidio Ravanel, spokesperson for the Landless Movement (MST), explained that the farmers are demanding government loans to buy seeds for cultivation.
European Union member states have called on Russia to initiate a dialogue aimed to end the war in Chechnya. EU foreign affairs ministers asked the Russian government to keep open channels to allow refugees to leave the conflict area. Chechnya declared independence from the Russian Federation in 1991.