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The Dartmouth Free Press (Dartmouth College)
By Lara Santiago Renta
August 10, 2001
HANOVER, NH -- Vieques . Until recently, the name meant nothing to many. To the world at large, it was an anonymous island in the Caribbean; one that evoked glossy images of the sandy beaches and vacation resorts that have come to characterize the region. Affectionately referred to as "La isla nena" (daughter/child island) it is a municipality of Puerto Rico and home to 9,300 of our people. Our location and waters have long made Puerto Rico sought-after, first by the Spanish, and then by the United States after 1898, which gained control of the island as a result of the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans were given U.S. citizenship in 1952, but we do not have representation in the United States Congress. We are a commonwealth, inextricably linked with the Unites States in a relationship that is close to colonial. Our status in relation to the United States has long been, and continues to be hotly debated today.
Vieques is a beautiful island, rich in protected wildlife and coral reefs. Since its appropriation by the Navy in 1938, however, the island of Vieques has come to represent Puerto Rico 's long and sordid past with the United States military. In recent years, the use and abuse of Vieques has united political groups and citizens from all over Puerto Rico and the world.
For more than 60 years, the United States Navy has used the island of Vieques for target practice, war maneuvers and bomb storage. From the beginning this has meant a blatant disregard of and lack of respect toward the people of Vieques . Despite being six miles away from the mainland of Puerto Rico , the shortest routes to and from Vieques are controlled by the military. This makes it necessary to travel 22 miles by ferry. This is an impractical journey that cuts Vieques off from the mainland. In 1961, the navy tried to completely sever the island from the mainland by seeking presidential approval for the removal of all of the people of Vieques alive and dead, (the emptying of the neighborhoods as well as the cemeteries) in a plan known as "Plan Dracula." Rejected by President Kennedy on the basis of human rights, the plan is representative of the general attitude of the navy toward the people of Puerto Rico . The examples are numerous and alarming.
A recently declassified report on the San Jose project shows that the Navy tested mustard gas on the island's people. In 1993, the Navy dropped five bombs one and a half miles from Isabel Segunda (the largest town in Vieques ), only four of which were accounted for. In 1998, by the Navy's own admission, five separate "live-fire events" occurred during training exercises. In 1999 a Marine fighter "accidentally" fired 263 shells loaded with radioactive depleted uranium onto Vieques , only 57 shells of which were recovered. Entire portions of the island are littered with military refuse and unused explosives. This is shameful on an island that claims three of the only seven remaining bioluminescent bays in the world, and on which 10 federally listed endangered species exist. The navy has been in violation of the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (which regulates transportation, storage, treatment and disposal of hazardous materials). Indeed, unexploded bombs remain in waters just off the coast.
The people of Vieques themselves have been subject to errant bombs, soil and water contamination, and dangerous levels of depleted uranium for more than 60 years. Within just the past few years, the level of exposure to radioactive and explosive materials the people of Vieques have been exposed to is startling. In 1995, two navy personnel accidentally dropped two bombs on the boat of a fisherperson, and in the same year two inert 25-pound "marker" bombs were dropped near civilians. In 1997, three unexploded anti-tank rockets were found on a civilian beach. On July 21, 1999, the military admitted that in 1992 it had dropped bombs containing napalm on Vieques . From just these examples, it is not surprising that cancer rates on Vieques are 26 percent higher than they are on the mainland of Puerto Rico . In 1999, the navy "missed," again, taking the life of David Sanes Rodriguez. This was the last straw, and the world began to take notice.
Since 1999, large-scale protests have begun against the military's abuse and disregard of the island and its residents. All over the world, ecological and human rights groups have begun to take notice of the situation in Puerto Rico . In a place where party lines and military affiliation tend to determine the politics, the citizens of Puerto Rico have joined together in a clear majority for the common cause. It has ceased to be as much a political issue as simply a matter of being granted the rights and considerations guaranteed to all American citizens.
Peaceful acts of civil disobedience have been consistently taking place, with public figures now taking a stand as well. Members of Congress, reverends, actors, performers, students, and ordinary citizens have been arrested for protesting, and Governor Sila Calderon has repeatedly stated her position in support of immediate cessation of Navy practices on Vieques .
A recent referendum showed that the clear majority of people in Vieques want the Navy to leave. President Bush has increased controversy by deciding against the people and allowing the military to stay until at least the year 2003. This pleases neither the people of Vieques who want immediate withdrawal, nor the navy that wishes to stay indefinitely. Despite the overwhelming opposition, the navy insists that Vieques is irreplaceable and that its maneuvers there may be done nowhere else. When taking the facts into consideration, there may be some truth to this: there is no tactical alternative because no other group of Americans could be forced to tolerate this kind of abuse.
This same argument, that a specific training site is absolutely necessary, was once issued by the Navy in relation to Culebra, Panama, and Kahoolawe, Hawaii. None of these sites are currently being used for training. Vieques is the only site on the East Coast where the navy continues the bombing of a fragile ecosystem close to a significant population. As Puerto Rico has no representation in Congress, the islands continue to be used as the navy wishes. Aside from the manner in which the navy has gone about its maneuvers, the necessity of the maneuvers themselves is questionable. Does it make a great difference to sailors firing ammunition if the rounds strike an island 50 miles away, or an electronic target 50 miles away?
Despite the advent of various forms of technological training, the navy refuses to consider them a viable option, instead choosing to train the same way it has for more than 60 years. While it is established that valuable training can be done at Vieques , the navy has yet to make a case to convince the people of Puerto Rico and abroad that Vieques is a unique area whose benefits in terms of navy training could be matched nowhere else.
In the meantime, the struggle continues. The people of Vieques are caught in a tug-of-war between military interests and their livelihoods. The abuse that has been happening for so long in Vieques is unacceptable at a human level. The physical, ecological and economic toll on these people has been immense. The United States has taken a stand against many countries around the world on the basis of human rights violations while its own military continues to perpetuate them on its own territory and on its own citizens. Regardless of political affiliation, this is an issue no American should ignore. Neither the navy nor the United States government can continue to disregard the will of a people to such an extent. Hopefully it will not take another 60 years or another tragedy for their voices to be heard.