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South China Morning Post
Anger At `Yankee Oppressor's' Bombing Exercises Threatens To Unravel Colonial Relationship, Hostility Grows Over War Games
By Dan Boylan, in San Juan
June 5, 2001
For American fighter pilots in training, Puerto Rico has long been a desirable destination, not so much for its stunning Caribbean beaches, but more for flying fast and low, shredding palm trees with bullets and pounding the sand with bombs.
While local resistance to such war games has simmered since the exercises began during World War II, Puerto Ricans have grudgingly submitted to the training tactics of the world's mightiest military.
But recently, calls to halt the US navy and Marine exercises have grown increasingly hostile.
In the past month, Puerto Rican activists and politicians have been arrested for rioting at the training camp. Others have started hunger strikes in the capital San Juan and in New York, where over one million"Newyoricans", or people with Puerto Rican roots, live.
Last week, seizing an opportunity to fuel the resurgence of Puerto Rican nationalism, Cuban President Fidel Castro even stepped into the clash.
So strained has the situation become that commentators in both San Juan and Washington say the dispute threatens to unravel the complicated colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.
Since American troops seized the island during the Spanish-American war of 1898, the union has been uneasy.
Puerto Ricans have been US citizens since 1917. But for the majority of islanders, whose culture, language and traditions descend from Spanish conquistadors, accepting the US as their master has been difficult.
Throughout the 1950s, when communist and anti-colonialist sentiments swept across the Caribbean, Puerto Rican extremists bent on gaining independence lashed out at their so-called "Yankee oppressor".
In 1950, fanatics attempting to assassinate president Harry Truman were arrested. Four years later, separatists stormed the House of Representatives in Washington, opening fire on members of Congress.
During that era, Puerto Rico 's governor Luis Munoz Marin brokered the present "commonwealth agreement", which dictates the island's relationship with the US. Under the deal as it stands today, Puerto Rico 's four million residents do not pay taxes to Washington but receive some US$13 billion (HK$101 billion) in federal aid. They also send a non-voting member to US Congress.
The US presence is everywhere in Puerto Rico - from the smooth highways winding the coast to the welfare payments and veteran's pension two-thirds of the population receives from Washington. The perks have encouraged many islanders to call for Puerto Rico to become America's 51st state.
Many have been tempted. In both 1993 and 1998, pro-statehood was narrowly defeated during island-wide elections.
But while the population remains evenly divided over completely joining America, many intellectuals still seek full independence. Now, with the bombing dispute again setting tempers ablaze, the opinion that America is exploiting Puerto Rico has again spread.
"The Yankees place no value on Puerto Ricans . They have devalued us to the point of considering us disposable, just as one throws away a used paper plate," activist the Reverend Juan Antonio Franco said last week during a rally in the Cuban capital, Havana, with Dr Castro.
Those feelings reached boiling point last year when an American pilot flying his F-18 on a routine training run dropped two 225kg bombs that missed their target. A civilian was killed and four others were injured.
Puerto Rican nationalists went berserk. Former president Bill Clinton responded rapidly to their outrage and offered to wind down the war games gradually.
His proposal drew immediate criticism from the Pentagon, which insisted training in Puerto Rico was crucial to the strength of US forces. Other skeptics said Mr Clinton was kowtowing to San Juan to woo Hispanics during last year's elections.
Whatever the motives were, they meant little in the end as Puerto Rican leaders rejected the plan and the bombing continued.
Fast forward to earlier this year, when a new report found that cancer rates near the bombing range had soared.
The study showed that more than a third of the 9,000 inhabitants of Vieques , the island used for training, suffered from serious illnesses and cancers linked to the US navy's use of depleted uranium shells.
Controversy has hung over the shells since troops exposed to the bombs during the Kosovo peacekeeping mission and the Gulf War have been stricken with leukemia.
After a legal wrangle, activists forced the navy to admit DU shells had been fired on Vieques in 1999. Navy officials were quick to say the weapons were used mistakenly and the radioactive shells were recovered afterwards.
But Puerto Rican activists responded by producing scientific evidence that depleted uranium shells had been in use for at least a decade on Vieques , the site of some of the world's heaviest bombing practice. Most recently, Vieques residents have sued the US Government for more than US$100 million in damages. Puerto Rico 's Governor has also sought to block further war games through US courts.
For now, Vieques , which lies within sight of Puerto Rico 's main island, remains a target for American pilots flying training runs.
"They should bomb some place else - maybe Washington," said a San Juan merchant.