Activists protest US Navy radar project
April 12, 1998

By Carmelo Ruiz

Puerto Rico - Puerto Rican environmentalists and nationalists are celebrating the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) decision to cancel its Coqui Two experiments.

The experiments consisted of eleven rocket launches from a makeshift pad in a beach in the northern coast town of Vega Baja. These rockets would release chemicals in various layers of the atmosphere in order to study their effects on telecommunications and radio.

Three of the rockets were not launched.

Coqui Two was the object of persistent and heated protests, led by the Committee against Experiments on the Environment. The Committee claimed that the chemicals released by the rockets were an environmental hazard and that the experiments were of a military, not civilian, nature.

Members of Familia Taina, a group of socially and environmentally conscious surfers, say that bathers and surfers in the Puerto Rico north coast began suffering from unusual skin sores when the Coqui Two experiments began. Similar skin irritations were widespread in the wake of NASA's Coqui One experiments in 1992. The government attributed them to jellyfish stings.

"The rashes and sores of 1992 and today are totally different from jellyfish stings", says Familia Taina spokesperson Hector Javier Pesquera.

Coqui Two opponents are convinced that the experiments are part of a US military program to develop new 'cyber-warfare' weapons. Chemist and long-time environmentalist Neftali Garcia sees a relationship between the NASA rockets and the controversial High Frequency Advanced Auroral Research Project (HAARP) in Alaska, a US military project to alter the ionosphere.

Although a NASA spokesperson told the local press that the cancellation of Coqui Two was motivated solely by adverse weather conditions, he also admitted that the protests, which carried on around the clock for fifty-two days, had a real effect on the scientists' morale.

NASA scientists had to go through a gauntlet of hostile protesters every time they drove in and out of the launch pad area. The demonstrators also had powerful speakers through which they blared music and protest speeches at the scientists at work.

Coqui Two opponents also turned to civil disobedience to thwart the rocket launches. Members of environmentalist group Friends of the Ocean, as well as Familia Taina, swam every evening into the restricted waters in front of the launch pad, in kayaks and surf boards respectively. NASA's own safety regulations prohibit rocket launches if there are unauthorised persons within the safety perimeter.

Helicopters with searchlights, police boats and riot police on the shore tried to apprehend the protesters, but to no avail. Every evening, kayakers and surfers managed to slip past the law enforcement authorities and enter the restricted waters. In some nights there were as many as twenty seaborne protesters, all of them waving flashlights in order to make their presence known..

Members of Friends of the Ocean and Familia Taina claim that some rockets were launched while they were within the security perimeter, in blatant violation of NASA's own safety rules.

In the week that preceded the cancellation of the experiments, law enforcement authorities became increasingly desperate in their efforts to quell the protests.

Police turned the area around the launch site into a virtual 'no-man's land' as they arbitrarily searched passerbys and fined motor vehicles for trivial traffic law violations, according to the Committee against Experiments on the Environment.

Protesters at the entrance to the launch site encountered an increasingly belligerent attitude from the policemen in the last days of their vigil. At one point a police lieutenant waved his gun and threatened to shoot them.

However, in the end NASA quit its experiments. Coqui Two opponents are convinced that their protests, and not the weather, dicouraged the scientists from carrying on with the rocket launches.

"Being able to stop three of the launches is a great triumph for the people and an encouraging precedent for other social and environmental struggles in Puerto Rico" said Committee representative Luis Lourido.

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