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U.S. Bombs Explode Hope In Vieques

By Johanna Bermudez

June 1, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Newsday. All Rights Reserved.

THROUGHOUT my childhood, I wondered why my family, who was originally from Vieques , was living on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. No one talked about it. It was as if there was a phantom lurking over us.

Later, as I was researching my documentary about the use of Vieques as a bombing range, I learned that the U.S. Navy had forcibly removed my father's family from their land one morning at the crack of dawn in 1941. They were totally uprooted along with thousands of other people and transplanted to St. Croix.

After spending seven months on my project, I now understand the systematic military roles these U.S. colonies- Vieques , Puerto Rico and St. Croix-play in America's imperial rule over the world and how it's affected my destiny. St. Croix is where Navy ships go to refuel after they bomb Vieques . St. Thomas is where sailors go to party after their practice runs.

On April 19, 1999, a Navy jet missed its target and killed a security guard working at the site. Puerto Ricans on Vieques and in New York were outraged. That was the last straw. For 60 years, Vieques had been used as a bombing-practice zone by NATO and other countries, for the rental price of $80 million a year. The accidental killing of David Sanes Rodriguez was not the first mistake in the lives of the Viequense people, but it sparked demands to evict the U.S. Navy from Vieques . And it hit me that I had to document this struggle.

After a month of intense preparation and a one-way ticket, I arrived in a virtual war last year. The atmosphere on Vieques was tense. About 9,400 people inhabit the remaining middle of the island. The Navy, which has 75 percent of the island, is under pressure to keep the population below 10,000, because otherwise it would have to cease operations there. To give birth, pregnant women have to go to hospitals in Puerto Rico . The local people want the Navy to leave. I saw graffiti on businesses, schools and pavements that read: "U.S. Navy out of Vieques !"

By a small fishing boat, I reached the bombing zone, where protesters had struck up camp. The once lush hills were decapitated. The land was destroyed with deep craters. Bomb casings protruded from the sea like dead bodies. The beaches were contaminated with mercury and uranium, spent bullets, ruined tanks, and other metallic debris. It was totally forbidding.

Meanwhile, old people and children had been congregating in front of the gate, blocking the main entrance to the base. Between the road and the gate, protesters' tents were stretched under a blazing hot sun. Three times a day, helicopters flew over the camps taking pictures. Every day, radio stations in San Juan falsely announced that U.S. authorities were coming to arrest the protesters camping in the zone and the blockaders at the gate. Finally, a year and two weeks after the death of David Sanes Rodriguez, major American media arrived on the island to cover the arrests. After a few sleepless days, the authorities invaded the camps and arrested more than 200 people including elderly, politicians, lawyers, mothers and everyday Americans.

Two weeks later, on May 13, 2000, the Navy began bombing again. President Bill Clinton claimed that the Navy was using inert bombs. That same day I interviewed one of nine people hiding in the bombingzone who witnessed live bombs exploding 200 feet away from her. That night I joined 56 people who entered the bombing zone to protest the use of live bombs and were later arrested. One journalist was badly beaten up. I escaped with video footage of the demonstration.

There is no doubt in my mind that the U.S. Navy is executing an environmental genocide on my people, forcing them off Vieques by the lack of health care and jobs; killing their fishery, which is their livelihood; and bombing the island three times a year. Sometimes bombs fall in people's backyards. The ecology is being contaminated by bombing debris and nuclear waste reportedly held in underwater tanks between Vieques and St. Thomas. It is no shock that civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton and other Bronx political leaders have joined forces with demonstrators to stop the human rights violation of my Viequense people.

The issue is not to win the Puerto Rican votes in New York City. The issue is to get the Navy out of Vieques by any means necessary. Americans must take action-not just give lip service to the issue as does Gov. George Pataki, who is seeking a piece of the Puerto Rican pie. This is more than just politics; this is about people's future.

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