As Vieques Hunger Strike Enters Day Five, Jailed Officials Remain Steadfast

Roberto Ramirez is at once resolute and stunned, proud of his stance yet amazed at where he sits. The New York City politician is in prison, sentenced along with nearly a dozen others last month for trespassing during protests of U.S. Navy bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

"This wasn't supposed to happen," Ramirez, a lawyer, told The Associated Press in an interview Friday at the prison where he and two other elected officials are serving 40-day sentences on the charges.

"When you think about the community that I come from, not going to jail was an incredible achievement," he said.

"I spent all my life staying away from jail. In my family, I was the first one to graduate from high school, the first one to get a college degree, the first one to go to law school. I'm the successful one. I went to the state legislature, I became head of the Democratic Party."

Now, he is among the four demonstrators in federal prison in Brooklyn who are staging a hunger strike that was in its fifth day on Saturday.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, City Councilman Adolfo Carrion, state Assemblyman Jose Rivera and Ramirez, the Bronx County Democratic Party chairman, were arrested in Puerto Rico for taking part in protests May 1. Sharpton, who has other civil disobedience arrests, was sentenced to 90 days in jail for trespassing.

Virtually all the publicity about the so-called Vieques Four has focused on Sharpton, a civil rights activist, but Ramirez, Rivera, and Carrion have also been on a hunger strike to call attention to the Vieques exercises. They were among hundreds arrested on trespassing charges in the protests last month.

The three, who have rated little mention in most news accounts, have Puerto Rican roots and have held elective office. Ramirez said they are grateful for the publicity Sharpton has drawn to the issue; yet they draw on a stronger cultural connection.

"I think we have a different perspective. I've been hearing about Vieques all my life. It's been going on for 60 years and I'm 51. Jose Rivera has been fighting against what's happening in Vieques for at least 20 years," said Ramirez.

Their roots help give them the "willingness to put our political careers on the line for the greater good," he said.

Linda Baldwin, Carrion's wife and his lawyer, said that "There's a political history between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and being Puerto Rican makes you very aware of that."

But it has not been easy for the three to explain to their children why they are in prison and to stay immersed in their political careers from behind bars.

"It has been hard to explain why their father is in jail. The concept is not an easy one," Ramirez said.

Baldwin said, "It's been very difficult on the kids. It's hard to explain to them, but they understand that it's for a good cause. It is very upsetting."

"All we did is to stand in a dirt road eight miles away from where they were bombing for about 20 minutes," Ramirez said, adding of his jail sentence: "This just seems disproportionate."

Each of the three has sought to continue working to some extent through visits and telephone calls.

"I have Fernando Ferrer's mayoralty campaign, I have Adolfo Carrion's borough president race, I do law work. ... The most difficult is the need to make this (Vieques protest) happen and also keep up my own responsibilities," Ramirez said.

Rivera is officially "excused" from the Assembly instead of being recorded as "absent" for as long as he is jailed. The Assembly and state Senate have approved resolutions calling on the Bush administration to stop the practice bombing, saying it is damaging the environment and the health of Vieques' inhabitants.

The four have not made a final decision on how long they will continue their hunger strike, but Ramirez said he intended to persist as long as the action seemed meaningful — at least until the end of his sentence.

"I always wanted to be a member of a group, a quartet," said Ramirez, referring to his membership in the Vieques Four, a term coined by the New York media.

"I just never imagined in my wildest dreams that it would be like this."