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Hispanics Warn Congress: Stop Threats to Puerto Rico Over Vieques

January 26, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

In a sharply worded letter addressed to U.S. Senate leadership, the Hispanic Coalition for Puerto Rico Self-Determination today called on the Senate leadership to stop threats of reprisals to Puerto Rico, should that U.S. territory refuse to bend to the U.S. Navy's will respecting future use of the live-fire range on Vieques. In a full-page ad appearing in Capitol Hill publications, the Coalition posed a series of questions to Congress, one of which asked, "How does a territory, controlled by Congress, protect its population from 500-pound bombs fired by pilots still learning to use them and hold the U.S. Navy to agreements that it admits it has broken?"

An April 19, 1999 misfiring, that killed one and injured four Vieques residents, became a final straw of resentment for Puerto Ricans over the Navy's use of its parcels on Vieques. The incident provoked demonstrations among the island's 3.9-million American citizens, protesting the Navy's continued training there. In subsequent testimony before Senate committees, the Navy admitted that, for the fifty-nine years of its use of Vieques, it has been a neglectful occupant. The terrain is strewn with unexploded ordinance and, in some areas, littered with depleted uranium-tipped radioactive shells. Also, there is a disproportionately high cancer rate among the civilian population close to the range (plus 29%). By its own admission, the Navy has abrogated agreements made in its 1983 Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Puerto Rico.

The Clinton Administration offered to phase out operations on Vieques within five years and to restrict training to the use of dummy ordnance, but island political leaders rejected this compromise, demanding a permanent halt to all air and sea bombing and an immediate cessation of Navy operations on the range. The Coalition takes the position that, "Puerto Rico is exercising its legitimate right to protect the safety of the 9,300 inhabitants living in close proximity to the impact area."

Congress, returning to Washington this week from winter recess, is joining the debate. The Senate Armed Services Committee, concerned about the impact of the Vieques stand-off on the combat readiness of naval and marine forces, is planning hearings. In a December 3, 1999 statement, Committee Chairman John Warner (R-VA), bemoaned the fact that "political leaders (in Puerto Rico) tolerated civil disobedience." He went on to state that "this will mark the first time in our nation's 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 harms way to protect our national interest." Other members of the Committee are already directing recriminations at Puerto Rico. Senator James M. Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) warns that closure of the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in Puerto Rico could be the result of the island's refusal to accommodate the Navy on Vieques. The Coalition letter states that "any disparagement or censure of the American citizens of Puerto Rico will be treated by Hispanic Americans as an insult to us all."

The Coalition charged that Congress is "dealing with the symptom of a deeply chronic political disease, having its roots in the colonial relationship existing between the United States and Puerto Rico." The island is still an Unincorporated Territory of the United States after more than a century of U.S. occupation The letter charged that the conflict over Vieques "is rooted in Congress' failure to provide Puerto Rico with a process to achieve a permanent political status. Our fellow citizens in the territory have no Constitutional means to redress government injuries suffered. They lack the congressional representation that any one of the 50 states of the Union could call upon in such a conflict. If it were an independent country, some treaty between sovereign powers would govern the U.S. Navy's use of the controversial military base." The letter suggested that in either of these hypothetical cases, the Navy's compliance with agreements made likely would have seen corrective action before the occurrence of any such accident and the subsequent reaction to it by the Puerto Rican people.

In a Coalition press statement, Rick Dovalina, National President of LULAC, said that "U.S. Hispanics deplore the manner in which Puerto Rico has been threatened with economic reprisals by some Republican senators. This is no way to be treating people who have served valiantly in the defense of our country." The Coalition is comprised of national Hispanic civil rights organizations, including the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the American G.I. Forum, the National Association of Hispanic Publications, the National Hispanic Policy Forum and the Hispanic National Bar Association.

Francisco Ivarra, National Commander of the American G.I. Forum, the largest Hispanic veterans organization in the United States, said, "Hispanic veterans are outraged by Senate threats against the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans have demonstrated, by their valiant service in our armed forces, that they are patriotic Americans who have made great sacrifices in defense of our nation. It is a deep concern that they are not given the respect and courtesy due every American citizen."

Coalition leaders renewed their demand that Congress provide a mechanism for the people of Puerto Rico to choose a permanent political status. The 105th Congress failed to provide a process authorizing a plebiscite in Puerto Rico that offered congressionally-approved status options. "This failure," the letter went on, "constituted an abrogation of legislative responsibility and a breach of faith, not only with the American citizens of Puerto Rico, but with 30-million-plus Hispanic Americans." Andres Tobar, Executive Director of the National Association of Hispanic Publications, emphasized that, "It is time that the Congress deal with the real cause of the Vieques issue---the second class status of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. The Hispanic community will not rest until Puerto Ricans achieve equal rights with their fellow Americans on the mainland."

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