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The Toronto Star

Citizen Carlos; Jays' Delgado Fights For Justice For The People Of A Small Puerto Rican Island Vieques Ravaged By Six Decades Of U.S. Weapons Testing, Writes Geoff Baker

BY Geoff Baker

July 3, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Toronto Star. All rights reserved.

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico -- For more than a year Carlos Delgado has been staging his own private protest. Its origins are rooted on the tranquil shores of this picturesque island, until recently a testing site for bombs and missiles used by the United States in Iraq.

When "God Bless America" is played during major league baseball games in some U.S. cities, the staunchly anti-war Blue Jays first baseman refuses to stand outside the dugout.

"I never stay outside for 'God Bless America,'" Delgado said. "I actually don't think people have noticed it. I don't (stand) because I don't believe it's right, I don't believe in the war."

Delgado was the first high-profile athlete to speak out against the U.S. Navy's six-decade presence in Vieques, where it used the lush green hillsides and pristine beaches as the prime testing facility for the weapons of the entire Atlantic Fleet.

The Jays slugger had heard some of the island's 9,300 residents complaining about how uranium-depleted shells used in the tests were causing abnormally high rates of cancer and other serious illnesses. By the time the Navy finally did pull out of Vieques on May 1, 2003, it left behind a community terrified by health concerns, dealing with unemployment close to 50 per cent and facing unresolved development and cleanup issues.

Small wonder that Puerto Rican native Delgado shows little patience today for the flag-waving, pro-military pageantry seen at major league games since the Sept. 11 terror attacks and U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

While the conflict in Iraq and the problems confronting Vieques are separate issues, they are also intertwined. That's because the fishermen, farmers and shopkeepers of this island unwillingly paid a huge price so the U.S. could certify the weaponry used in Iraq.

Delgado was already "anti-war" before being involved in Vieques and now has some choice opinions about U.S. foreign policy and the Iraq conflict.

"It's a very terrible thing that happened on Sept. 11," Delgado said. "It's (also) a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. I just feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war.

"But I think it's the stupidest war ever," he said. "Who are you fighting against? You're just getting ambushed now. We have more people dead now, after the war, than during the war. You've been looking for weapons of mass destruction. Where are they at? You've been looking for over a year. Can't find them. I don't support that. I don't support what they do. I think it's just stupid."

The Jays and Delgado were in Puerto Rico last night to open a three-game series against the Montreal Expos. While an injured Delgado won't play in the series - and heads to Syracuse tomorrow for a Triple-A rehabilitation assignment - he is attending the first two games to sign autographs and deal with a slew of local media requests.

Delgado didn't get involved in Vieques - 20 kilometres off the southeastern tip of mainland Puerto Rico and accessible only by small plane or a thrice-daily ferry - because of his anti-war views. But he flies back every winter from his mainland hometown in Aguadilla, and sees first-hand the cost of testing America's weapons.

"You're dealing with health, with poverty, with the roots of an entire community, both economically and environmentally," he said. "This is way bigger than just a political or military issue. Because the military left last year and they haven't cleaned the place up yet."

Large sections of the former Navy base, which took up two-thirds of the island's 13,000 hectares, remain sealed off because of unexploded shells and contamination by heavy metals. The reopened part is now a wildlife preserve.

Having so much underdeveloped land gives Vieques a soothing calmness beloved by its handful of frequent visitors, who fear a future influx of tourist hordes more than any talk of contamination further up the island. There are no traffic lights in the two towns of Esperanza and Isabel II, where children ride on horseback alongside cars, country-style inns are the norm and 10 p.m. is the preferred closing time.

Activists who'd spent previous years fighting the Navy are now lobbying for a development plan that will help the economy, give locals control of the land and curb massive resort projects.

The struggle by those activists to push the Navy out ever since it expropriated the land in 1941 enjoyed brief moments of media attention. International wire photos in 1979 showed local fishermen in tiny yola boats using slingshots to fire rocks at U.S. Coast Guard vessels, while some activists got noticed for draping the Vieques flag over the Statue of Liberty in New York City.

But it wasn't until civilian David Sanes was killed by an errant bomb during Navy manoeuvres on April 19, 1999 that the Vieques protests made political headway. Delgado saw news about the death on television and, like many Puerto Ricans, wanted to do something.

His father, Carlos Sr., a man with political connections throughout the U.S. protectorate of Puerto Rico, introduced him to an old Socialist Party pal named Ismael Guadalupe.

The high school teacher, a leading figure in the island's protest movement, had spent six months in prison in 1979 for trespassing on the Navy base.

"He wanted to help out with more than just the situation with the Navy," Guadalupe, 59, said of Delgado. "He wanted to help the people there. He wanted to help the children."

Delgado was from a different world than the resourceful, street-tough activists of Vieques, like Carmelo Felix Mata, who built a ramshackle home on hillside land belonging to the Navy in 1989. When authorities came to arrest Mata, he unleashed swarms of bees from hives he'd kept and chased them back down the hill.

More homes sprouted up in what became a rebellious neighbourhood known as "Mount Carmelo."

"I've had 178 court cases against me and I've never spent a day in jail," Mata, 66, said defiantly this week as he limped around his hilltop property, in a neighbourhood strewn with signs depicting cartoon-like bees that salute his triumph.

Guadalupe and fellow activists would sneak onto the Navy base at night by cutting holes in a perimeter fence alongside Mata's disputed property. They'd walk a 10-hour route towards the target area, wait for the weapons testing to start and then halt it immediately by firing flare guns to signal their unwanted presence.

The activists needed Delgado outside of jail, so they couldn't risk taking him along for their land and sea incursions on to the Navy base.

His biggest contribution was in lending the cause his name - joining other high-profile supporters like the Dalai Lama, Hillary Clinton, singer Ricky Martin and actor Martin Sheen. Delgado, together with Martin and boxer Felix Trinidad, took out full-page advertisements about Vieques in The New York Times and Washington Post. He has also donated $100,000 (U.S.) to youth sports, schools and activists on the island.

"He's a well-known person, based in the United States, and he has a lot of fans," Guadalupe said. "That's why he is so important to us. It's not going to make him more famous to be involved in the Vieques struggle. He might actually lose popularity because of it."

Delgado didn't fear reprisals for his newspaper ads critical of the Navy in April of 2001. "What are they going to do, kick me out of the game?" Delgado said. "Take away my endorsements?"

But since the Sept. 11 attacks, baseball players have gone even more out of their way to avoid criticizing the government, or military.

"We're not doing anything wrong," Delgado countered. "Sometimes, you've just got to break the mould. You've got to push it a little bit or else you can't get anything done."

Robert Rabin, the Boston-born director of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, the island's main activist group, shares that sentiment.

"I know that people will ask why Carlos Delgado would want to engage in some anti-American activity like the struggle in Vieques," said Rabin, who moved to the island in 1980 to write a college thesis, married a local and now runs the historical museum. "I hear this all the time, but consider it my duty to speak out when I think my government is being unjust. People say that's anti-American. I say that's what being an American is about."

Rabin has been arrested three times and served five months in jail in 2002 for engaging in civil disobedience. He used part of a $20,000 (U.S.) donation by Delgado in 2000 to fund youth sports leagues in Vieques and a permanent "Peace and Justice" protest camp directly across from the main Navy gates.

Rabin figures his job was only half done when the Navy pulled out and says an upcoming fight over the development and cleanup phase of Vieques is equally important.

The Navy pullout was bittersweet for Guadalupe, who found out days later that his wife, Norma, had breast cancer.

Guadalupe fears the Navy's shells made his wife sick. A pending class-action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of Vieques residents, but the Navy denies it caused the illnesses.

"She had no history of cancer in her family," he said, sadness on his face. "My brother is also a cancer patient and we don't have a family history either."

Delgado can't make such pain vanish with his money. He instead focuses on the personal ways he can make a difference, like visiting a school, or hiring a helicopter to fly him from Aguadilla to Vieques each January for a special Three Kings Day celebration. At this year's event, he handed out gifts to children and ran a baseball clinic.

"You'll need millions and millions of dollars to clean Vieques up," Delgado said. "So, we try to make (the money) as effective as we can. We make it work for kids. I can't clean up Vieques by myself. It's going to take a lot of people."

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