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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Defending Democracy With Bombs And Guns

By Oscar Arias

August 8, 2001
Copyright © 2001 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

In a non-binding referendum on July 29, the people of Vieques democratically expressed their will for the future of their island: They want the Navy to leave now.

However, the U.S. Navy ignored the referendum and resumed its bombing operations on Aug. 1.

Unfortunately, the right to have its voice heard internationally is something Puerto Rico has never fully owned, first due to Spanish colonization, then to U.S. dominion.

Most recently it has been Puerto Ricans themselves, whether through deals struck between the Puerto Rico governor's office and the White House or through popular referendums, that have confirmed their preference for the benefits of the present commonwealth status over the loss of cultural autonomy implied in statehood and the loss of economic and military protection that would come with independence.

The major drawback of commonwealth status -- no vote, no voice -- has mostly been relegated to the background of the debate. The situation on Vieques is bringing it to the fore, however, and it merits close attention.

The time of meek acquiescence to the will of Uncle Sam appears to be coming to an end. Thanks to the death of David Sanes due to an errant bomb on Vieques, as well as at least anecdotal evidence of elevated rates of cancer and heart problems there, together with the indisputable damage to the fishing industry caused by Navy bombing, Puerto Ricans are now demanding their say in Washington.

They have elected a governor in Sila Calderón, who promised to confront Washington and make it eminently clear that the Navy is no longer welcome in the paradise-turned-wasteland that is the island of Vieques. But Calderón's hands are tied by previous agreements, and Washington -- the Pentagon, in particular -- is showing no sympathy for the new awareness and democratic impulse among Viequenses and Puerto Ricans in general.

The Navy refuses to budge, and the most that the U.S. administration is willing to concede in this situation is a few million dollars in development money for Puerto Rico -- spare change, from a country that spends more than $300 billion a year on weapons and soldiers.

The budgetary priorities of the United States reflect its superpower world view, which is buttressed by a unilateral and coercive foreign policy. The U.S. government has made clear time and time again that it values military force over peaceful resolution of conflicts, unilateral action over compromise and, in the final analysis, strategic interest over democracy.

The current administration has shown itself to be especially intransigent, but in truth it has not differed all that markedly from previous administrations when it comes to questions of U.S. interests vs. the well-being of people living outside the United States.

For though the U.S. professes to be a promoter of democracy throughout the world, we in Latin America have seen the consequences of brutal dictatorships supported by the U.S., often installed after coups arranged with the help of the CIA to overthrow elected leaders whose politics leaned too far left for American tastes.

Some say this is ancient history, but the wounds are still fresh in Central America, Argentina, Chile and Brazil.

And what of Puerto Rico? We are not now dealing with the installation of a generalísimo, but rather with the tyranny of bombs and artillery. Here, the value of military readiness takes precedence over democracy, which would respect the will of the people who are directly affected by the Navy's activities. To insist on conducting bombing exercises on this tiny island while its people suffer is a display of heartlessness that is frightfully similar to the attitude of the militant extremists the U.S. government officially repudiates.

I do not claim to offer a blueprint for resolving the question of Puerto Rico's status in relation to the United States of America. The question has been democratically resolved, at least for the time being, with the 1998 referendum, in which Puerto Ricans chose to retain commonwealth status.

What I do know is this: the situation on Vieques should prompt some searching reflection on the part of Puerto Ricans about the nature of democracy, just as it should prompt the U.S. government to look in the mirror and recognize the hypocrisy of defending democracy with bombs and guns while the people it claims to be protecting suffer a slow and agonizing death, with the added humiliation of having no power over the forces that destroy their lives and livelihoods.

The bombing should be stopped, and both parties should take a lesson from the suffering of this small, sad island in the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea.

Dr. Oscar Arias is the former president of Costa Rica and 1987 Nobel Peace laureate. He wrote this for the Sun-Sentinel.

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