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New York Daily News

Halting Vieques Bombing Is Long Overdue


March 5, 2001
Copyright © 2001 New York Daily News. All Rights Reserved.

'GRACIAS A DIOS!" said Juan Figueroa, thanking God when he found out that the Navy had announced that it would stop bombing Vieques .

"It should have happened a long time ago," Figueroa said. "How can people be expected to live with the noise and the fear?"

Figueroa, a native of Puerto Rico who has lived in Maspeth for 50 years, is the president and founder of the Asociacin Puertorriquea y Hermanos de Queens. And he was expressing the feelings of hundreds of thousands of his compatriots.

It sounded almost unreal when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday that, at least temporarily, the Navy would not use Vieques for target practice.

After all, it had been bombing the hell out of the little island for 60 years. And what is worse, residents have nothing to show for it.

Actually, Vieques ' association with the Navy has been disastrous. Beyond bombings and military maneuvers, after six decades of the Navy's presence, 72% of the population lives below the poverty level and 50% is unemployed.

Besides, Viequenses suffer disproportionately from cancer, cardiovascular diseases and other illnesses.

"The Navy will go on with some aspects of the training," Rumsfeld said, "but it will not use the internal shooting range, pending the conversations that are taking place at this time."

He was referring to the dialogue that Puerto Rican Gov. Sila Mara Caldern initiated with the Bush administration last week, during a five-day official visit to Washington.

The bombing suspension was, make no mistakes, a victory for Caldern, the first woman ever elected to lead Puerto Rico .

On Feb. 22, the governor had told a group of Hispanic journalists in New York that she would ask President Bush to cease all military operations on Vieques .

"The Bush administration, hopefully, will review the new medical information and take appropriate action," she said.

Caldern insisted on that occasion that quick action was necessary because Viequenses - 9,400 U.S. citizens - are suffering serious health problems, like low birthweight, high mortality and cancer, which she thinks are due to the military operations.

"The Navy should stop the bombing immediately," she said.

Her plea was taken seriously by Rumsfeld and the Bush administration, and they decided to suspend the bombing and analyze the new medical information Caldern delivered to them.

"It took a woman," says Alice Cardona of Woodside, founder of the National Coalition of Puerto Rican Women and publisher of the political newsletter Alice News. "[Former Gov. Pedro] Rossell, despite wearing pants, was not able to do anything."

Fundamental as Caldern's role was in obtaining the ceasefire, she did not do it alone. Thousands of people protested over the years what they considered an abuse of power by Washington. The three Puerto Rican members of Congress, Luis Gutirrez (D-Ill.), Jos Serrano (D-Bronx) and Nydia Velzquez (D-Brooklyn), also did their part lobbying other legislators. "The three of us signed a letter to President Bush asking him to suspend the bombing and to allow the Centers for Disease Control to review the medical information supplied by the governor," Velzquez says. "The administration was sensitive enough to pay attention to Gov. Caldern's petition."

THE SUSPENSION SHOULD turn into a permanent ceasefire. If and when it does, the victory - a moral one - will be not only of Puerto Ricans , but of all the American people.

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