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The Capital Times
Vieques Island Residents Need Action From Tommy
by Chad Kautzer and Nora Alvarez
January 25, 2001
It comes as no surprise that a short and familiar list of federal programs dominated the confirmation hearings of Health and Human Services Secretary-designate Tommy Thompson. After all, prescription drugs, welfare reform and the solvency of Social Security and Medicare affect millions of us. Nearly eclipsed by these concerns, but no less deserving of Thompson's attention, however, is the fate of the U.S. citizens on the island of Vieques .
The residents of this Puerto Rican municipality have grudgingly endured U.S. military bombing exercises on their island for over 50 years. A study documenting the detrimental health effects of these exercises| including cancer and a rare form of heart disease| currently awaits Thompson's immediate review and recommendation at HHS. The Vieques (pronounced Bee-ACHE-es) problem, although lacking the national attention of large-scale federal programs, does afford Thompson the advantage of a simple and expeditious solution: the immediate and permanent cessation of military exercises on the island.
Opposition to the U.S. Navy base on Vieques is as old as the base itself, but was galvanized this past April by the death of David Sanes, a civilian security guard killed by stray bombs from an FA-18 jet. Mass occupation of areas within the bombing zones, some lasting as long as a year, and sustained civil disobedience followed. The Navy's subsequent admission that in February of 1999 more than 200 depleted uranium projectiles had been "accidentally" fired from a Harrier jet onto the island further emboldened demonstrators. The most recent culmination of this long-standing opposition was the November election of Gov. Sila Calderon on a "Peace in Vieques " platform.
On Jan. 15, Gov. Calderon oversaw the release of a study on linking a rare heart ailment, known as vibroacoustic disease, to Navy bombing on the island. The disease is detected by a thickening of the membrane that encloses the heart and was found in 49 out of 50 people studied in Vieques . Together with a 27 percent higher rate of cancer and above-normal levels of heavy metals found in hair and stool samples of Vieques ' residents, the prevalence of vibroacoustic disease is a damning indictment of bombing on the island.
Last week, outgoing President Clinton ordered Pentagon officials to develop an alternative to the Vieques base and instructed HHS to complete a review of the study of vibroacoustic disease before bombing is slated to resume in March.
As incoming secretary of HHS, Thompson will exercise his discretion in deciding which issues to champion and which to shelve for "further consideration." There will, no doubt, be considerable pressure coming from many within the Bush administration to do the latter, letting the issue languish in some subcommittee that has yet to convene. Defense Secretary-designate Rumsfeld has already publicly expressed his support for continued bombing. To withstand Pentagon pressure, Thompson will have to show leadership and venture some political capital, but as secretary of HHS it is his duty to support policy promoting the health of all U.S. citizens, including those who live on the island of Vieques .
IN THE LOOP Al Kamen
Some Junketeers Are No-Shows for Big Game
January 26, 2001
It's Super Bowl weekend! America's weekend! But don't look for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Tampa. Seems the DSCC isn't having its usual Super Bowl fundraising junket this year. Instead, 130 donors of $30,000 in soft money or $15,000 in hard money will be wined and dined today through Monday in Puerto Rico . It's an odd destination, considering the commonwealth's recent election of statehood opponent Gov. Sila Maria Calderon, a sharp critic of U.S. naval shelling of the island of Vieques .
There were logistical problems, a DSCC spokesman explained. Because the game is in a different city each year, the availability (and swankiness) of hotel rooms varies dramatically, making planning a nightmare. The island was picked long before the election.