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Stop This Senseless Bombing


June 24, 2001
Copyright © 2001 CHICAGO SUN-TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

When I was a little boy growing up in the small town of Brownwood, located deep in the heart of Texas, kids usually made toys to play with or searched for things that looked like toys with which to play. In retrospect I would say we were extremely creative. Not everything worked. One day my oldest brother Daniel got the bright idea to build a wooden boat. We weighed it down so much we could hardly carry it. As soon as the boat hit the water it sank so fast we jumped in just to ride it down to the bottom.

One day we learned a hard lesson that not everything we found was a toy. A friend of mine, Robert Gill, found an object that somehow had ended up in his backyard. The object appeared to be a metal canister, and little Robert took a hammer and tried to take it apart by pounding just below the tip. He never got to see what was inside. A blow from the hammer struck the canister in just the right spot and Robert's body was blown to bits. He had been playing with a bomb.

How could this happen? The answer was Camp Bowie, located just outside our city limits and home to an armored division during World War II. Central Texas was ideal for tank and other heavy armored equipment training. The area is sparsely populated and the nearest towns were 40 to 50 miles away. For nearly 50 years I've often wondered if anyone thought about how the countless number of unexploded bombs could endanger the lives and safety of innocent civilians later, especially little ones like Robert.

As far as I'm concerned, Vieques Island is today's Camp Bowie, only worse. Puerto Ricans who live on the island say that the island is littered with thousands of unexploded bombs dropped on them from Navy planes. The U.S. Navy has been using Vieques, population 9,300, as a practice bombing range for 60 years. The statistics are staggering. According to Village Voice reporter Lenora Todaro, the Navy dropped 20,000 pounds of live explosives, including napalm, on Vieques in 1994. The Navy has admitted that in 1998 it dropped 273 radioactive depleted uranium shells on Vieques and accidentally dropped 263 more in 1999. They are believed to contribute to the development of cancer and leukemia, and only 56 were retrieved. The Navy has also admitted to discharging environmental pollutants at a percentage well above the legal limit: arsenic, 6.6 percent; lead, 105 percent, and cadmium, 240 percent. The incidence of cancer, scleroderma, lupus, thyroid deficiencies, and asthma is far higher on Vieques than on the Puerto Rican mainland. What is even more distressing is that there is not a single hospital on Vieques.

The continued bombing of Vieques is senseless and should be stopped immediately. The Clinton administration agreed to accept the results of a vote by Viequenses on whether or not to allow the bombing to continue in November 2003. That was dumb. Of course they are going to vote to stop the bombing. But not being one to be out-dumbed, now President Bush has unilaterally decided to order the Navy to stop bombing Vieques, also in November 2003.

What's with 2003 anyway? The speculation is that Bush is afraid that Vieques will turn Puerto Rican voters against his brother, who is seeking re-election as governor of Florida next year. The experts are also saying that Bush (the president) must improve on his 35 percent share of the Latino vote. Good luck. Next to African Americans, Puerto Ricans are the most loyal Democrats of all ethnic or racial minority groups in America. Trust me: It is no coincidence that 57 African American and Hispanic members of Congress, led by Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez, have called on the president to stop the bombing now.

One last thing. What was even more incredible was Bush's reasoning for ordering the bombing to cease in 2003. ''These people are our friends and neighbors, and they don't want us there,'' he said. Friends and neighbors? Good God, Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States! We have occupied their land for 101 years. We made them U.S. citizens in 1917. But never in 100 years have we treated Puerto Ricans with the dignity and respect they deserve. The status of Puerto Rico can be decided later, but protracted colonialism should not be an option. For starters, we should stop the bombing immediately if not sooner.

Juan Andrade is president of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, a national organization based in Chicago.

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