VIEQUES, Puerto Rico – Protests against U.S. Navy bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, so heated last year, seem to be muted this spring as the anti-war game movement has lost steam since Sept. 11.
Fewer than 100 people showed up for a motorized protest Sunday as two dozen honking cars blasting salsa music meandered through the civilian areas of the island urging the Navy to get off "la Isla Neña," the "darling little island."
Even the protesters' slogans sounded lackluster as they shouted "Vieques, yes. Navy, no. Navy get out!" through megaphones.
Last year, hundreds of people, including such imported luminaries as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., ended up in jail protesting against the bombing. Even New York Governor George Pataki, a Republican usually not involved in military issues, turned up to show his solidarity with the islanders.
On Friday, the Navy announced that the range would become "hot" again on Sunday, but spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Katherine Goode said exercises were not actually expected to begin until Monday.
Protest organizers blamed the low turnout on the Easter holiday and said they were as ready as ever to charge into the 900-acre firing range to halt the bombing — though some activists, as previous offenders, could face up to six months in prison.
"There are several groups that are waiting to receive the call. And when they receive the call, then they are going to be all over the camp," said protester Jose Maria, who said he spent 20 days in jail last year for breaking into the range.
The eastern tip of Vieques has been a bombing range for decades. The movement against bombing has existed for almost as long, went nowhere until two bombs went astray from a Marine jet in April 1999 and killed a local civilian guard who worked on the range.
Activists swiftly broke onto the range and occupied it for a year, preventing exercises until they were forcibly removed by U.S. Marshals.
The guard's death turned years of simmering resentment into outrage that rallied Puerto Ricans of all political persuasions. Even Puerto Rico's pro-statehood governor at the time, Pedro Rossello, rallied behind the slogan "Not one more bomb."
But Sept. 11 changed all that. A law passed after the terror attacks allows the Navy to use Vieques until it finds an alternative.
Even current Gov. Sila Calderon — elected on a promise to force the Navy out immediately — now shies away from outright criticism. She says she backs a deal, endorsed by President Bush, for the Navy to leave by May 2003.
Demonstrations against exercises after the Sept. 11 attacks were muted. Many protest groups agreed not to break into Navy land, partly for security and partly in solidarity with victims of the attacks, which killed dozens of Puerto Ricans.
Some opponents disagreed with that decision.
Robert Rabin, a Boston native who settled on the island decades ago, criticized the Navy during Sunday's protest rally.
"It is they who are the terrorists," he told cheering supporters.
"They are responsible for the infirmities that have gripped our community, they are responsible for the destruction of our environment," he said.
Opponents of the exercises say the bombardment harms the environment and health of Vieques' 9,100 residents — accusations the Navy denies.
The Navy says there is no other single place it can do what it does in Vieques, where planes drop bombs, ships lob shells at the shore and Marines practice amphibious landings — all simultaneously.
Since 1999, the Navy has cut back Navy exercises to 90 days a year, down from about 180, and has used only inert ammunition.
Calderon told the Navy after Sept. 11 that she was worried that resumption of live fire on Vieques would "inflame passions" — the same passions that had added a new dimension to nationalism in Puerto Rico, where many complain they are treated as second-class citizens by Washington.
Some live-fire exercises scheduled for Vieques were relocated to North Carolina's Camp Lejeune and Florida's Pinecastle range in January, as the Navy said it was quicker and easier to train in the continental U.S.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.