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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Islanders Deserve A Breather After Decades
By DEBORAH RAMIREZ
May 5, 2001
They stood at the front of the Sun-Sentinel auditorium, each wearing a black T-shirt with a single white letter. In formation, the letters spelled Paz (or Peace) for Vieques. The 13 human billboards had driven four hours to make their point.
They had traveled from Orlando to Fort Lauderdale for a conference on Vieques . About 60 people showed up for the Friday night talk, which coincided with the start of Navy war games on the tiny Caribbean island.
The room was abuzz with sentimiento.
It is difficult for some Americans to understand why many Puerto Ricans feel so passionately about Vieques , a 20-mile-long island about eight miles east of Puerto Rico that the Navy has used as target practice since World War II. The military owns two-thirds of the island, which is shared with 9,400 residents. These live between a bombing range and a munitions dump.
Passions flared last week when the Navy resumed military maneuvers that were met with acts of civil disobedience. Bare-chested young men were photographed cutting through wire fences in Vieques , their mouths covered with handerchiefs to guard against pepper spray. Close to 200 protesters were arrested and not all from Puerto Rico . The evening news showed clips of actor Edward James Olmos and environmentalist-lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr. perched on a small fishing boat headed for the bombing range. They, too, were arrested. So was Vieques ' new mayor, Damaso Serrano, who returned to work on Thursday after spending a few nights in the slammer.
This anti-bombing campaign came to a head two years ago when Vieques residents' worst fears came true. Two 500-pound Navy bombs fell off target in April 1999, killing civilian guard David Sanes Rodriguez. All hell broke loose. Vieques became the No. 1 civil rights issue in Puerto Rico . It is the first time anyone can remember the island's three fractious political parties uniting behind a common cause. They were joined by most religious, business and civic organizations.
Frustrations over Navy war games had simmered long before the accidental bombing death. The root cause is Puerto Rico 's lack of political power over its own destiny.
If Puerto Rico were a state, with seven members of Congress and two senators, the complaints of Vieques ' residents would have been taken seriously a long time ago. These include noise, contamination and health problems. Vieques , a laid-back island that doesn't have a single McDonald's, has a cancer rate higher than that of Puerto Rico and the United States.
No hard scientific evidence links Navy exercises to health problems, although several studies are under way. But there clearly is a health problem. Gov. Sila Calderon recalls meeting once with 300 residents at a community center in Vieques . She asked how many had close relatives with cancer and said that nearly everyone raised a hand.
Since unemployment is high -- developers don't like bombing exercises any more than residents do -- many people getting sick in Vieques have no health insurance. Their suffering is compounded.
If Puerto Rico were an independent nation, it could negotiate an agreement with the Navy for a bombing range, if it chose to. Such an agreement could have conditions a lot more favorable than what Vieques ' residents have had to live with all these years.
But Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth with no voting rights in national elections. It is true that Puerto Ricans , who are U.S. citizens, have not clamored for statehood or for independence. It is also true that Congress has never asked what status they prefer.
The federal government plans to ask Vieques voters whether they want the Navy to stay permanently and practice with live ammunition or leave by 2003. The referendum is scheduled for November. Vieques would get an extra $50 million in federal development funds if it allows the Navy to stay, which smacks of vote-buying. But this may be the fairest way to solve the problem.
Others suggest the White House immediately halt the bombings. This was the sentiment at last Friday's conference, which included a multimedia presentation on Vieques ' environmental destruction. The event was co-sponsored by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists Region IV and Circulo Cultural Boricua, a local civic group.
"I don't think the people of Florida would agree to have the Keys bombed," said Rich Sierra, president of the Puerto Rican Democratic Club of Broward County, after watching the slide show.
He's right. The Navy needs a place to train for extremely difficult amphibious landings. But it should be a place that no one calls home. After half a century, Vieques deserves a breather.