Esta página no está disponible en español.
The Ties That Bind - Puerto Rico And The Mainland
Change In Vieques
December 4, 2004
Even now that the bombing has stopped, the navy is not off the hook
IF THERE is one rule of Puerto Rican politics, it is that all the big decisions are still made back on the mainland. A federal district judge in Boston has become the pivotal figure in the election for governor of the dependency. When counting was halted on November 2nd, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá of the Popular Democratic Party, which favours keeping commonwealth status, led Pedro Rosselló of the New Progressive Party, which wants full statehood, by 3,880 votes. But that ignored 28,000 so-called "mixed" ballots where voters basically split their choices among the parties.
Up in Boston, Judge Daniel Dominguez wants these ballots to be counted, but not added to the official total. This seems to have angered everyone. Mr Acevedo Vilá has sued to return the dispute to Puerto Rico's Supreme Court. Meanwhile his supporters have held protest marches. "The future of the electorate is being decided in Boston by a federal judge appointed by a president they didn't vote for and confirmed by a Senate in which they have no representation," notes Luis Gutierrez, a congressman from Illinois whose family comes from Puerto Rico and advocates its independence.
Nowhere symbolises Puerto Rican resentment with America better than Viequesa speck of land off the eastern tip of Puerto Rico's main island. For decades, the American navy used Vieques as a bombing range. In 1999, protests began in earnest after an errant bomb killed a security guard; in May 2003, the navy gave up the last of its land and pulled out for good.
Yet talk to the people of Vieques today, and there is little sense of victory. A row of white wooden crosses at the camp's old front gate is a stark reminder that cancer rates on the island are significantly higher than elsewhere in Puerto Rico (and the medical facilities are worse). There are also worries about contaminated vegetables and seafood.
Most of the reclaimed island remains off-limits to the locals. The 9,400 residents are wedged on a narrow strip of land across the middle of Vieques. Much of the rest has been designated a wildlife refuge; but unexploded bombs and other hazards make much of it unsafe for humans.
In theory, the navy is cleaning this up under the supervision of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but progress has been slow. Only $4.3m has been spent so far on decontaminating a former munitions storage depot on the west end of Vieques. Cleaning up the even more contaminated east end, where the live-fire zone used to be, has not started as the navy, EPA and Puerto Rican government wrangle over the scope of what will be done. "It's going to be expensive and it's going to take a very long time," admits Ben Barry, an EPA official. "They say the bombs went ten feet into the ground," says Edwin Torres, a municipal official who went to jail for civil disobedience when the navy was there. "Anybody coming along to start a bonfire or watch turtles could explode."
In the best American tradition, the residents are taking some of their grumbles to the courts. A huge claim against the navy for health problems is being organised by Eaves, a Mississippi-based law firm that has represented Gulf war veterans and asbestos victims in other cases. Bif Browning, an environmental investigator who has spent six years on Vieques for Eaves, insists that the navy used depleted uranium and even napalm on the island, and claims hair tests on residents show toxic levels of mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium and aluminium.
So far, the navy has not accepted responsibility, insisting there is no proof it harmed residents. Earlier this year, members of the Hispanic caucus in Congress asked the secretary of the navy to release detailed records of all the substances used on and around Vieques. No response yet.
But the news is not all bad. After much pushing in Washington, Vieques is soon to be officially listed as a federal "superfund" site, making the eastern tip a high priority for a clean-up. Meanwhile, the western end of the island already boasts a few blissful beaches. Both seabirds and ornithologists are returning. And property values are rising as Americans look for retirement and holiday homes.
Indeed, many of the same activists who are pursuing the navy also have their eye on a new enemy from the mainland: unscrupulous property developers. "Now we're in danger of bombardment by powerful political and economic interests," says Robert Rabin, a longstanding resident and leading activist. "They'll turn Vieques into another St Thomas or St Croix if we're not careful."
As for the two gubernatorial candidates, both have tried to depict themselves as friends of Vieques. Mr Rosselló had talks about the island with President Bill Clinton during his former term as governor, but he is seen as too close to the property developers. Mr Acevedo Vilá's party has historically been friendlier towards the people's struggle. But that, like so much in Vieques, is now in the hands of somebody on the mainland.