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Boston Herald

A Century Of Colonial Rule Is The Real Issue In Vieques


June 30, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Boston Herald. All Rights Reserved.

Community activists and the government of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico remain unsatisfied with President Bush's announcement that the Navy will stop using the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a bombing range in May 2003. The Navy appropriated most of Vieques on the eve of World War II, and began using the eastern portion for target practice starting in the mid-1970s.

Rather than boost the local economy, as bases often do, the Navy's activities in Vieques stifled economic development and contributed to a host of serious health problems including elevated cancer rates.

Relations between the Pentagon and Puerto Rico deteriorated following the death of Vieques civilian David Sanes during naval exercises in April 1999. Remarkable for a society known for its deep political divisions, Puerto Ricans of all political stripes on the island and U.S. mainland agree the bombing must stop immediately, not two years from now.

Island residents have a hard time trusting the Navy when the military insisted for years that its activities in Vieques had few harmful effects on the local environment. We now know that the military's former lands in western Vieques , properties recently transferred to civilians, hold more than a dozen toxic waste sites.

Apologists for the armed forces buy the military's claim that Vieques is unique, and the only place in the Atlantic where the Navy can carry out its training. The Pentagon is correct; Vieques is indeed unique. But its distinctiveness, many islanders fear, may be due less to geography and more to the fact that its population is Puerto Rican , and therefore expendable. Would the Navy get away with using Martha's Vineyard, Long Island, or even Texas's South Padre Island for a bombing range?

The Navy used the same "uniqueness" argument a decade ago when it asserted that the Hawaiian island, Kaho'olawe, was the only place where it could carry out its Pacific training. Hawaiian outrage over the deaths of two activists led to former President George H.W. Bush's decision to put an end to that bombing range. George Bush the elder believed that a change in military policy could boost the senatorial aspirations of Republican U.S. Rep. Patricia Saiki. Speculation abounds that President George W. Bush the younger, may have an eye on Latino voters in the 2002 and 2004 elections. Those appalled by thoughts of politicians tailoring government policy to appeal to particular ethnic voting blocks need only look at Cuba, Ireland, Israel and South Africa.

The federal government makes rules for Puerto Rico , yet Puerto Rican islanders take no part in that decision-making process. They have no representation in the Senate and only a non-voting delegate in the House. District of Columbia residents belong to the only territory entitled to vote for the president. Harsh as it may sound, this status remains, by any other name, one of the last remaining instances of colonialism in the 21st century.

For Puerto Ricans , Vieques is not just an issue of military policy. It's a matter of civil rights, human rights and social justice. The Vieques dilemma is also inseparable from Puerto Rico 's larger colonial quandary. After more than a century of colonial rule, it is time for our government to seriously tackle not only Vieques ' future, but also the final status of Puerto Rico .

Amlcar Antonio Barreto is a professor of political science and Latino studies at Northeastern University and the author of an upcoming book on the Vieques controversy to be published by the University of Miami Press.

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