Statement of Juan Cartagena, President & General Counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF On the Passing of Carlos “Taso” Zenón
All Puerto Ricans, indeed, all people who cherish peace and work to end the militarization of the planet, have lost a leader in the struggle this week. Carlos “Taso” Zenón died in Vieques, Puerto Rico. He was 84 years old. Zenón was the leader of the Association of Vieques Fishermen (Asociación de Pescadores de Vieques) and one of the leaders who fought against the bombing of the island of Vieques by the U.S. Navy from the 1970s up through its departure in 2003.
Carlos Zenón grew up in Vieques surrounded by the exploitation and military might of the world’s largest naval force and all the danger it created on the island. As a child he and his mother became homeless when the U.S. Navy expropriated their modest home to make way for its military base. Soon thereafter as a boy he witnessed the death of a childhood friend when an unexploded ordinance detonated leaving his friend dismembered. It drove his passion to see Vieques free of the naval onslaught. And he fought his entire life.
In February 1978 he organized Vieques fisherman to protest the U.S. Navy’s order to halt all fishing for 30 days while it conducted war exercises. Knowing the economic blow to their livelihoods, Zenón went out with 40 small boats to literally confront U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. The images of fishermen throwing rocks at battleships and enormous aircraft carriers were beamed throughout the world and created the visual link to the people’s struggle.
Years later, after the killing of David Sanes in Vieques by an errant Navy bomb the movement to free Vieques galvanized people throughout Puerto Rico and throughout the Puerto Rican diaspora. That was when I met and heard Carlos “Taso” Zenón. His resolve never wavered. His vision was clear. And his solidarity with the men and women of his island town of Vieques was evident in every move he made. I too was present in Vieques on May 1, 2003 when the U.S. Navy officially pulled out and the prohibited beaches were open to the public. It was a new day.
But the struggle to reverse the damage to Vieques is ongoing, however. LatinoJustice PRLDEF is still supporting legal claims by the residents of the island to force a complete decontamination of the damage down by 60-plus years of naval bombardment.
Today, the island is a tourist destination but it lacks investment in sustainable livelihoods for its residents. Zenón’s view of the current struggle was firm in its call for continued action. In an interview with El Nuevo Día he said, “This is not the Vieques that I had hoped for, but this is also not over. Me and my family will die with our boots on.”
Que en paz descanse, Zenón. Rest in peace.