Velda Gonzlez may be 68 years old, a grandmother 11 times over, a breast cancer survivor, and the vice president of the Puerto Rican Senate, but that didn’t stop the U.S. Navy from publicly humiliating her.
The degradation began when Gonzlez was arrested on April 28, after she and a group of coconspirators entered Camp Garcia—a naval operations base on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques—in an attempt to derail a scheduled bombing session. After spending the night handcuffed in a detention center, Gonzlez, a popular activist who has been a senator of Puerto Rico since 1980, and the other protesters were taken to a processing center by Navy personnel and U.S. federal agents. There, naval guards led Gonzlez outside to a public area, where she was subjected to a full body search in front of about twenty male members of the Navy.
“The guard lifted my shirt as high as she could and began squeezing my breasts—hard,” says Gonzlez. “Then she squeezed me all over my body, making sure the men could see everything.” Gonzlez, who recently underwent radiation treatment, says the incident was physically as well as emotionally painful. “Not only were all those men watching, enjoying the mortification of an older woman,” she says, “but a naval officer was actually videotaping it. This was done to humiliate me and make an example of me because I am a well-known politician.”
Gonzlez, who was a successful actor before turning to politics, may have been singled out because she is one of Puerto Rico’s most beloved senators, but she wasn’t the only woman to be so abased. PR Senator Norma Burgos charges that she was searched four times—once while completely naked—during the four days the protesters were held. And PR Senator Yasmn Mejas reports that when she went to the bathroom, officers refused to remove her handcuffs, left the door open, and watched.
Gonzlez freely admits to trespassing, but she also maintains the Navy has no right to be there. “The people don’t want them here,” she says fiercely. “We’ve had enough of their bombs.” Gonzlez is referring to the Navy’s 60-year history of using Vieques to test equipment and practice maneuvers. “The Navy says it is good for Vieques,” says Gonzlez. “That’s a lie—aside from environmental damage and health issues, the Navy holds back economic development. Who wants to live or work in a place where bombs are going off all the time?”
Gonzlez believes that as U.S. citizens, she and the other protesters have every right to raise their voices in dissent, even though, because Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, they are not permitted to vote. She is determined not to let the Navy off the hook. At a Congressional Hispanic Caucus hearing held in Washington, D.C., in June, Gonzlez took the stand and shocked everyone with her story. Now Amnesty International is on the Navy’s case and has sent an observer to the island, and Dubya has announced the Navy will withdraw in 2003.
“That’s not good enough,” says Gonzlez. She views the Navy presence as an extension of old-style imperialism. “We’re done with colonialism,” she says quietly but firmly. “Fuera la marina! [Out with the Navy!]”