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Stop Endangering American Citizens
by Alcides Ortiz
May 27, 1999
Copyright © 1999 CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Alcides Ortiz is executive director of the Puerto Rico
Federal Affairs Administration. He serves as Gov. Pedro Rossello's
chief liaison to the rest of the United States.
The tiny island of Vieques, located just off the southeastern
coast of Puerto Rico, looks like an idyllic vacation spot on a
map. But take a closer look and you'll find the 33,000-acre paradise
is more than two-thirds occupied by the U.S. military. It's the
only place in the Western Hemisphere where the U.S. military conducts
live-fire training exercises within close range of a significant
population of civilians.
Most recently, a tragic military accident that occurred on
Vieques demonstrated the need for immediate attention by Congress
to Puerto Rico's political status. An American civilian was killed
and four others were injured April 19 when a practice bomb missed
its target. Two U.S. military pilots flying FA-18 Hornet jets
accidentally dropped two 500-pound bombs off target, resulting
in the death of David Sanes Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican and, thus,
In the 1970's, a similar accident and six years of protests
convinced the Navy to shut down live-fire practice on the Puerto
Rican island of Culebra.
Despite the Culebra decision, the U.S. military has continued
the use of live-fire training on Vieques . How could that possibly
happen? Because Puerto Rico has no voice in Congress.
If a citizen of any state had been accidentally killed during
military training exercises, your representatives and senators
would have protested, and the federal government would have been
forced to respond in some manner.
In a letter to President Clinton, Puerto Rico 's governor,
Pedro Rossello, said, "No community of American citizens
should have to endure such conditions." Instead, Rossello's
pleas to the Clinton administration have gone unanswered.
The governor has met with the secretary of the Navy and implored
him to cease live-fire activity until an investigation is conducted.
The Navy apologized for the tragedy and has temporarily halted
the use of live ammunition while it conducts an investigation.
Still, while pledging to make the exercises safer, the Navy
maintains the use of live ammunition is an essential part of the
military exercises in Vieques. In other words, the Navy is saying
it is going to continue live-fire training on Vieques -- even
at the cost of American lives.
For more than 50 years, these all-too-frequent bombings have
placed residents at risk, damaged the environment and scared tourists
away. The accident generated the largest showing of support for
Vieques' fishermen in their 30-year struggle against the Navy's
presence on the island. All three main political parties on the
island have joined in supporting Gov. Rossello's request to stop
the use of live fire.
Puerto Ricans proudly serve in the United States military and
have fought in battlefields around the world defending the freedoms
and privileges that accompany U.S. citizenship. Currently, there
are more than 11,000 Puerto Rican National Guardsmen serving our
nation. It is ironic that these Americans are denied the very
rights they risk their lives preserving for others.
Why does the issue become so complicated when Puerto Rican
citizens are accidentally killed? Because Puerto Ricans have no
voice in Congress and are at the mercy of elected officials for
whom we cannot vote.
Puerto Rico has offered the U.S. military use of other, uninhabited
islands in the area--but the Navy wants Vieques, complete with
its 9,000 civilian residents. And because Puerto Rico has no representation
in Congress and no vote in federal elections, military officials
are going to do whatever they please, regardless of the feelings
of those who are being affected by live-fire training.
The federal government needs to take the initiative to permanently
halt live-fire exercises in populated areas before another civilian
The American citizens of Puerto Rico have already given plenty
to the United States armed forces.