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Island Assaulted On Multiple Fronts
By Julio A. Noboa
June 27, 2001
AUSTIN, Texas -- The tiny island of Vieques off the coast of the commonwealth of Puerto Rico has been all over the headlines in recent months. The protest that began in April of 1999 has turned into a whirlwind of controversy, as thousands have been arrested for their beliefs that the Navy should cease all bombing practices on the island. Now President Bush, hoping to capture some Hispanic votes in 2004, has caved in and has signed an agreement saying that the Navy will be forced out by 2003. For many Puerto Ricans , this comes too little too late.
The bombing of the island seven miles from the coast of Puerto Rico has been going on since 1941, when the Navy seized two-thirds (or 26,000 of the 33,000 available acres of land) through expropriation. Thousands of residents were displaced and told that they would be given $20 to $30 for their land and to leave their homes in 24 to 48 hours. The Navy took direct control over the eastern and western half of Vieques , jamming the inhabitants into a strip of land at the center of their island.
Although there has been political unrest in the past over Vieques , the recent and most noteworthy protest came after the death of David Sanes on April 19, 1999. A civilian security guard, Sanes was killed when a bomb missed its target. Vieques erupted with grief and anger over the loss of innocent life.
The whole island of Puerto Rico has long supported Vieques ' claim that the Navy is being abusive. Even the former governor of Puerto Rico , who is not known for his outspokenness about Puerto Rican rights, had to tell the U.S. Armed Forces in 1999, "Never again shall we tolerate abuse of a magnitude and scope the likes of which no community in any of the fifty states would ever be asked to tolerate." And yet, it's not just Puerto Ricans who are upset. The U.N. has officially asked the Navy to leave Vieques . The Rev. Al Sharpton was jailed, along with Robert Kennedy Jr., and several other New York politicians. Gov. Pataki of New York has also expressed his support for the liberation of Vieques . Recently, several activists held up the Statue of Liberty to symbolize their hope that the U.S. can't just sweep this issue under the rug.
To complement the economic stranglehold that the Navy has put on the residents of Vieques , the Navy refuses to concede that the bombs they drop cause immense ecological harm to one of the only tropical rainforests in the northern hemisphere and contribute to overall declining health amongst islanders.
In a 1988 article, engineer and environmental consultant Rafael Cruz-Perez identified three ways in which the military's bombings pollutes the environment in Vieques : (1) Chemicals in the missiles' explosive payloads, (2) dust and rock particles released into the air as a result of the impact and/or explosion of missiles, and (3) metallic residues left by missiles after they detonate, and the junk heaps they use for target practice. Most of these chemicals remain in the soil, and the dust and rock particles contribute to higher levels of asthma among children.
It was only after Sane's death did Navy officials reluctantly admit it had been firing depleted uranium onto the shores of Vieques , an action that is usually restricted for wartime. People on Vieques have a 26 percent higher cancer rate than their brethren only seven miles away. Scientists all over the globe have visited the great coral reef on the western end, and they all come out with the same conclusion: Because of the Navy, the reef is dying.
But even beyond all the visible abuses, what is even sadder is that these people have to live in constant fear. While the bombs are not dropped everyday, the emotional toil is a constant reminder of colonization. It is the idea that a people, supposedly under the care of the U.S., have to accept this fate that is mapped out for them hundreds of miles away. Psychologically, the United States is telling Viequenos, all Puerto Ricans : We are still in control. We have shaped the lives of your ancestors, we are constantly changing yours, and we will continue to affect the lives of your children. Because we can.
The Navy is makes a weak argument by saying that Vieques is the only place it can hold amphibious assaults. Consider that Vieques is the only inhabited Navy bombing range, and the U.S. is 1,000 times larger than Puerto Rico . So why Vieques? It is part of the conquest that the United States has waged on the sovereignty of Puerto Rico since 1898. It's the old philosophy of might makes right especially if you're white that has been the cornerstone of the American empire for quite some time now.