It was 8 p.m., time for a shift change at the U.S. Navy's Camp Garcia, so Emma Nieves grabbed a key from a makeshift table and ran with a fellow protester into the pouring rain to open the gate and allow security guards inside.
The routine has been repeated every shift change since President Clinton decided on Friday to allow the Navy to train at the range for five more years--to get in, the civilian security guards who man the camp's entrance have to wait for protesters.
When Nieves returned to the table beneath a huge tarp, which was illuminated by kerosene lanterns and buckling in the wind and rain, she laughed like a young girl. "When I open that gate," the 52-year-old Nieves said, "I think of my grandmother, my mother and my daughter. And then I think of my grandchildren, and I say never again. Never again. They will never bomb in Vieques again."
Nieves is one of dozens of demonstrators in the newest protest camp here, set up at the Navy's "front door" in the wake of Clinton's decision to halt an impending Navy bombing exercise on this island but to allow the Navy to bombard the land with dummy munitions for five more years.
Since Monday afternoon, federal authorities have tried twice to cut the protesters' lock on Camp Garcia's gate but have been blocked by demonstrators who linked arms and were backed by hundreds of Viequenses chanting "Fuera la marina," or "Navy out."
The demonstrators' takeover of access to Camp Garcia is the most vivid example of the sense of empowerment that has been building here since spontaneous protests erupted after civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez was killed April 19 by two errant Navy bombs.
Residents decry Clinton's order opening the Vieques target range in the spring for five more years of maneuvers, even without live ammunition. And they seem genuinely insulted by his proposed $40 million aid package.
"They offered us $40 million," Nieves said, "as if Vieques were a prostitute."
But they count as one victory the cancellation of maneuvers scheduled for December by the Eisenhower battleship group. And the role that civil disobedience played in that decision has been lost on no one.
"We're not going to sit around here waiting for spring," when the next military exercise is scheduled, said Roberto Rabin, who runs the town's museum and cultural center and is one of the organizers of the protest. "The people of Vieques will continue to take firm actions to get the Navy to leave."
Residents say Clinton's decision has brought attention to Vieques, a little-known island whose 9,300 residents are sandwiched between a Navy bombing range on the east and a Navy ammunition storage facility on the west.
It has been a key training ground for the Navy since World War II. The Pentagon insists that Vieques is the only place the Atlantic Fleet can practice amphibious landings with jets dropping bombs and ships firing live ammunition as Marines advance inland.
"The longer the Navy goes without bombing, the less justification there is for their argument that they need to bomb in Vieques for national defense," said Carlos Zenon, 38, a fisherman who has become a leader among the protesters.
There are 10 protest camps scattered across the eastern end of the island, with 100 to 200 protesters camped out at any given time. The camps are manned by the Catholic church, a coalition of evangelical churches, a teachers group and labor unions, and a few are manned by different Vieques fishing cooperatives, among other groups.
Puerto Rican Independence Party President Ruben Berrios, a Puerto Rico senator, is manning one camp and has vowed to stay until he is arrested or the Navy leaves. "I'm sure that if nobody chickens out, we'll win," said Berrios, who has weathered two hurricanes during his seven months here.
The death of Sanes Rodriguez has galvanized Puerto Rico behind the drive to get the Navy to leave Vieques. The public policy of the administration of Gov. Pedro Rossello, which backs statehood for this U.S. commonwealth, is that the Navy should permanently cease all maneuvers and turn over its land holdings, which total 22,000 of the island's 33,000 acres, to the commonwealth government.
The issue is one of the rare ones to have brought together Puerto Rico's pro-statehood, pro-commonwealth and pro-independence factions. Despite Clinton's concessions, Puerto Rico's political, religious and community leaders have remained unified in their resounding rejection of the plan, and their insistence that "not one more shot" be fired on Vieques.
While the death of Sanes Rodriguez has been the catalyst behind the current drive to get the Navy to leave, relations between the Navy and Vieques residents have long been strained. Many who have joined in the protests, such as sisters Severina Guadalupe, 72, and Luisa Guadalupe, 82, had their childhood homes expropriated by the Navy and then flattened by its bulldozers.
"Vieques has sacrificed more for national defense than any place in the world," said Severina Guadalupe, a retired schoolteacher, recounting how her father was paid just $50 an acre for his land.
Viequenses also have long been suspicious that the Navy bombing has been affecting their health. A 1998 Puerto Rico Department of Health study, using data through the 1980s, found that the cancer rate here is 27 percent higher than on the main island of Puerto Rico.
"They say cancer runs in my family," said Nieves, whose mother and grandmother died of the disease and whose daughter and sister are afflicted by it. "But we want more studies to make sure it doesn't have to do with the bombing."
With the help of a cane, Luisa Guadalupe trudged through the mud that two days of rain had built up around the Camp Garcia protest site. Once out of the rain, and finally seated on a folding chair, she started talking about the days when the protests against the Navy drew only a few Vieques residents.
"I'm just relaxing here," she said. "They don't need me anymore. Now there are so many of us."
CAPTION: Amir Guadalupe, 2, aims a stone at a fence at Camp Garcia in Vieques, Puerto Rico. Protesters blasted the president's decision to continue Navy training there for five years.