February 22, 2016
They say that “those that do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.” It stands then that those who know their history are able to build on the struggles, sacrifices, contributions, and mistakes, as well as the wisdom handed down to them from prior generations. Below, I offer some accounts from Vermont history that I wrote while in federal prison, and read to the court during my appearance at US Federal Court in Puerto Rico in June 2001. The charge was “having entered the US Navy firing range on the island of Vieques during naval bombing exercises.” The account is not exhaustive of the role that Vermont and Vermonters have played in the struggle for social justice as it does not note the contributions of the original inhabitants of Vermont, the Abenakis, who still struggle to regain lands never ceded by treaty nor abandoned. That history has been already been written by others, and constitutes the warp upon which the fabric of Vermont history is woven. Undoubtedly, some who read this will recognize their deeds and actions, as well as what they contributed to Vermont history.
Vermont, often referred to as the conscience of the United States, has a citizenry that is long experienced in the practice of participatory democracy. It also has a history of being at the forefront of the struggle for social justice in the United States. Vermont refused to join the other original members of the Union until Congress included a Bill of Rights into the US Constitution. Even today the Vermont Constitution guarantees more personal freedoms than the US Constitution. Vermont, a key link in the Underground railroad during the Abolitionist period was the first state to abolish slavery. During the dark days of McCarthyism and the VietNam War, it was US Senators Flanders and Aiken, respectively, who called for the censuring of Senator McCarthy, and for the withdrawal of US troops from Viet Nam. During the early 1980s it was Vermont that helped lead the way to peace between the US and the Soviet Union by calling for a freeze and the elimination of nuclear ballistic weapons. During our nation’s involvement in the civil strife in Central America during the 1980s, a group of 44 Vermonters refused to leave the office of former US Senator Stafford until he agreed to meet with them regarding US policy and actions in El Salvador and Nicaragua. They justified this act of civil disobedience on the grounds that it was intended to halt the killing of innocent lives in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Vermont court judge, Frank Mahady, accepted the defendants’ “necessity defense,” and after having heard testimony from the defendants and a host of former government officials, policy and intelligence analyst, and US scholars— the jury found the defendants not guilty! This verdict affirmed the right of citizens to peacefully redress a grievance through an act of civil disobedience. And, in 2001, Senators Leahy and Jeffords, as well as Congressman Sanders called upon US Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to end the US Navy bombing of Vieques.
Since my writing, Vermont has continued to share a leadership role in the US social justice movement by having been the first state to legalize civil unions, and later one of the earliest to legalize same sex marriages. A number of of Vermont towns, via Town Meeting resolutions, called for repeal of all or parts of the “Patriot Act.” A new generation of Vermont workers and union activists successfully advocated for a Vermont livable wage, won paid sick leave for workers previously not covered, revitalized the state’s labor movement, and introduced a measure of democracy in the workplace by organizing the unorganized. Environmentalists, farmers, child advocates, and food activist engaged in acts of civil disobedience in order to protect Vermont’s natural resources, and close the state’s only nuclear power plant; they also built a sustainable food system which revitalized the agricultural economy, and assured a degree of food security and food sovereignty within the state. And, various “People to People” projects in Vermont, as well as the Vermont Refugee Assistance Program contributed to the normalization of relations with a number of Latin American countries, and offered shelter to those fleeing repressive governments in our hemisphere and from around the world.
Yes, Vermont has played a decisive role in the struggle for social justice, and as many have come to know –so have Vieques and Puerto Rico.
The people of Vieques and Puerto Rico have shown the world how a people armed with the courage of their convictions, and a love for their land can resist, peacefully, the world’s most powerful military. Neither the relative physical strength advantage of their adversary nor the threat of imprisonment for interrupting Navy bombing exercises deterred the people of Vieques from achieving their goal. For years they struggled valiantly and peacefully– asking for nothing more than justice, and for the right to live in peace.
Puerto Rico needs our solidarity again— as they demand an end to US colonialism, the right to restructure its crippling and odious debt, the decontamination and sustainable development of Culebra and Vieques, and the release of Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera from US federal prison, a cause that Vermont Bread and Puppet has lent its name and talents.
Below is an excerpt of a letter that I recently sent to our representatives in Congress. If you support the efforts outlined below, please contact Senator Leahy, Sanders, and Congressman Welch at the numbers listed.
……….I am writing you on behalf of the Vermont-Puerto Rico Solidarity Committee, Vermonters concerned with the events unfolding in Puerto Rico. The current debt crisis has highlighted for many in the United States the economic reality that Puerto Ricans have experienced for too many years. It has also brought to public attention the colonial relationship that has existed between Puerto Rico and the United States since 1898.
Many within the United States and Puerto Rico have linked the origin of the debt crisis to this colonial relationship, and only recently Governor Alejandro Padilla, the current governor of Puerto Rico, appealed to the United Nations for assistance in resolving the island’s political status. The governor in his appeal cited the United States’ non-compliance with the UN Resolution 1514 (XV) mandate on the granting of political sovereignty to non-self-governing territories. This assertion is supported by comments and memorandums to Congress by officials of the Truman administration in the days leading to the passage of the Puerto Rico Constitution in 1952. The communications assured members of Congress that it still had full control over all matters related to Puerto Rico’s political, economic, social, and territorial matters—despite claims by the US, and then Puerto Rico governor Luis Munoz Marin to the United Nations that the granting of Commonwealth status to the island by the US placed it in conformity with UN Resolution 1514 (XV).
………Today, we again ask for your assistance on other matters related to Puerto Rico–the ability of Puerto Rico to restructure it more than 74 billion dollar debt, ending the continuing colonial status of Puerto Rico, funding for the decontamination and sustainable development of Vieques and Culebra, and support for a presidential pardon of Mr. Oscar Lopez Rivera, a decorated Vietnam war veteran being held in US federal custody since 1981.
A small delegation comprised of Vermonters and prominent Puerto Ricans who are well informed on these urgent matters would like to meet with you at the earliest possible date. The urgency is necessitated by debt relief legislation, which is scheduled to be considered in the House this March, the continued high incidents of illness and poverty associated with the earlier bombing of Vieques and Culebra, the continuing human rights violations being imposed on more than 3 million Puerto Ricans under US colonialism, and the advanced age of Mr. Oscar Lopez Rivera, as well as the extraordinary long sentence which he has already served in a US prison.
I believe that the origin of the injustices being perpetrated in Puerto Rico is rooted in colonialism and its antecedent “booty capitalism”–a system that for the sake of profit exploits human labor, expropriates natural resources, subjugates peoples and cultures, impoverishes the majority of people, criminalizes resistance, and imprisons the resistor. It robs the perpetrators and its victims of their humanity, and the latter of their rights to life, liberty, and happiness. The current Congress does not bear responsibility for the establishment of this colonial relationship; but it does bear responsibility for its persistence if it does not take action to end it, and remedy the injustices perpetrated “in our name.”
The expression of Puerto Rico self-determination is not for Vermonters or their elected officials to decide. The expression of this inalienable right to self-determination belongs to the Puerto Rican people. It is a right guaranteed by international law, and earned through more than 525-years of struggle, valor, and sacrifice. Our responsibility as Vermonters, US citizens, and members of Congress is to ensure that all citizens are afforded equal protection and that our nation conforms to international treaties, agreements, and obligations of which it is a signatory– i.e., UN Resolution 1514 (XV) on the granting of sovereignty to non-self-governing territories and remedy the situation and its effects………….
As you may recall the 1984 and 1988 Vermont Democratic Party State Platforms called for the US to comply with the United Nation Resolution 1514 (XV), and for the end to the bombing of Vieques. What you may not know is that Don Pedro Albizu Campos, the most prominent advocate for Puerto Rico self-determination during the 20th Century, first traveled to the United State in order to study at the University of Vermont on a scholarship awarded to him by the Irish Freemasons. He later attended Harvard University where he became a strong and eloquent supporter of a free and independent Ireland, and earned his law degree. Scholarly research has suggested that as a student of Eamon de Valera at Harvard that he contributed to the writing of the Irish constitution. Later in life, his devotion to his Puerto Rican homeland made Don Pedro and the movement that he lead a target of US repression, persecution, violence, and imprisonment–a fate that other advocates of Puerto Rico self-determination have experienced…….
Arguably, there are many equally important issues that our Congressional Delegation must address, but I submit that the cause of Puerto Rico self-determination is one worthy of their, and our attention and action. The holding of a People in a colonial status or the treatment of a People as second class citizens “speaks” poorly of the democracy which we espouse to reclaim and perfect. Your willingness to contact our representatives in Congress will again lend Vermont’s voice to the struggle for social justice and democracy.
Manuel F. O’Neill
Myrna Miranda O’Neill
Suggested talking points when contacting our representatives
I am calling to ask you for
- your assistance on other matters related to Puerto Rico–the ability of Puerto Rico to restructure it more than 74 billion dollar debt
- your support to end the continuing colonial status of Puerto Rico
- funding for the decontamination and sustainable development of Vieques and Culebra
- support for a presidential pardon of Mr. Oscar Lopez Rivera