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Tiny Island Takes A Stand Against U.S. Bombs

by Michael J. Mazza

January 18, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PITT NEWS. All Rights Reserved.

I doubt that many Americans have heard of Vieques. This tiny Caribbean island, home to more than 9,000 residents, is located off the coast of Puerto Rico and has been the site of intense U.S. military training for more than 50 years.

But this military tradition may be ending soon. Protests over the U.S. Navy's bombardment of the tiny island have intensified since a training accident in April 1999 caused the death of civilian security guard David Sanes and the injury of four others. Outraged protesters soon began camping out on the embattled area and calling for the United States to cease using Vieques for target practice, much to the consternation of military officials who view the island as an irreplaceable training site.

Opponents of the bombardment of Vieques have been joined in their efforts by some high-profile figures, including U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, first lady (and Senate candidate) Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Even singing sensation Ricky Martin has voiced opposition to the bombing of Vieques. According to the MTV Web site, the Puerto Rican heartthrob told the newspaper El Mundo, "Puerto Rico is united in this cause, and I'm part of it."

President Clinton has been unsuccessful in his efforts to reach a compromise in the controversy. In December 1999, he announced that the bombardment of Vieques would resume this year, but at a reduced rate and with dummy bombs.

He also proposed phasing out training on Vieques entirely within five years.

Clinton's plan was rejected by Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello, who announced at a San Juan news conference that he could not accept a proposal that included the resumption of military maneuvers on Vieques.

As a military reservist of Puerto Rican heritage, I can sympathize with both sides of this passionate debate. On one hand, supporters of military readiness argue that Vieques is an essential component in training. Criticizing the cessation of training on the island, U.S. Sen. John Warner fumed. "This will mark the first time in our nation's over 200-year history that America and its territories have knowingly turned their backs on the responsibility to properly and fully train those who go forth in harm's way to protect our national interest."

I've trained with live ammunition, and I know that allowing troops to handle such material without proper instruction is potentially disastrous. But opponents of training on Vieques argue that bombardment of the island has already resulted in disaster. One Web site ( alleges that the Navy presence on and around Vieques has both economically crippled and ecologically damaged the island. The "Vieques Libre" site also cites studies indicating that environmental contamination caused by the bombing has led to high levels of cancer and other health problems, such as pediatric asthma, in the residents of Vieques.

Yes, American military personnel need the best training. But what -- or who -- are we as a nation willing to sacrifice in order to meet this objective? The objections raised by the opponents of bombing on Vieques should be carefully considered.

I find myself further disturbed by the fact that this bombing is being carried out against an island whose residents, because of the commonwealth status of Puerto Rico, have no vote in Congress. Although my ancestry is Puerto Rican, I grew up on an island -- Long Island, N.Y., to be specific -- where residents do have voting representation in the national legislature. You can bet that if the Navy decided to launch explosives at some of Long Island's affluent enclaves, the outrage would shake the halls of Congress.

So I call upon all Americans to hear the cry of Vieques. History will judge us harshly if the mightiest of nations tramples upon this tiny island under the pretense of national defense.

Mike Mazza would like to dedicate this column to all of the Puerto Rican women and men who have selflessly defended this country as members of the U.S. armed forces.

Michael J. Mazza, a native New Yorker of Puerto Rican heritage, is currently a PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh.

He writes a weekly column for the campus newspaper, "The Pitt News." The above editorial is about the controversy over Vieques.

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