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THE PUERTO RICO HERALD
Hispanics Warn Congress: Stop Threats to Puerto Rico
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
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."