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U. Massachusetts Panel Protests Vieques Occupation
By Bill Larkin
Massachusetts Daily Collegian (U. Massachusetts-Amherst)
November 2, 2001
Copyright © 2001 U-Wire. All Rights Reserved.
AMHERST, Mass. -- The U.S. government should support a global peace movement by respecting the popular demand of Puerto Ricans to remove the U.S. Navy from the island of Vieques , according to a University of Massachusetts panel of four activists.
Held in the Cape Cod Lounge of the Student Union, "The Island of Vieques : The Struggle between the Puerto Rican People and The United States Navy," criticized the Navy's use of the island for bomb testing. Nelson Acosta, director of the Office of Asian Latino African Native American Affairs, introduced the panel to about fifty students and local residents.
"In the aftermath of the events of Sept. 11, should we talk about issues like Vieques , or go on with our lives and risk appearing unpatriotic," Acosta said. "This discussion is not about patriotism, but issues that effect all our lives."
Vieques , a popular travel destination, lies 51 miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico . The island's only town, Vieques , or Isabel Segunda, was founded in 1843. In 1941, the Navy occupied 22,000 acres, two-thirds of the island's area, for military weapons testing.
Martin Espada, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts, said that the media has ignored the plight of Puerto Ricans living on Vieques . He claimed the bombing of Vieques , which houses more than 9,000 people, has resulted in a cancer rate 27 percent higher than the rest of Puerto Rico , a 50 percent unemployment rate and a poverty rate of 72 percent.
"The Navy must leave because the land and people of Vieques are being poisoned, and that is morally indefensible," Espada said. " Puerto Ricans must learn to say 'no.'"
Roberto Alejandro, a Political Science professor at UMass, said the expansionist history of the United States explains the foundation of the Navy's occupation of Vieques . He listed the military backgrounds and policies of the country's political leaders as well as the wars waged by America since its birth.
"In addition to making war during the past 200 years, what else has the nation done?" Alejandro asked. "The United States has been practicing terrorism by killing children, women, and civilian men in areas such as El Salvador and Puerto Rico ."
UMass alumna Susana Stringer Velez ('86) said she wanted to protest the Navy's harsh treatment of members of the peace movement. She spent 25 days in jail for crossing into one of the Navy's danger zones, where they practice dropping bombs from military aircraft.
"Yes, the soldiers put on a big show when they arrested the six of us," Belles said. "But the treatment given protestors by soldiers has improved because of the publicity given the island."
Roy Brown, an artist, singer and social activist, said that many of the Navy personnel harassed residents of the island, causing violence in town from 1940 to 1960. In response, he sang in the town's center, schools and clubs to unite the island's residents through music.
"I'm speaking today because Vieques is at the hearts of many artists in Puerto Rico ," Brown said. "Many of them have participated in civil disobedience acts and raised funds on the island for this multifaceted, ideological struggle."