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Telegram & Gazette Worcester, MA

Vieques Is Not Just A Little Island

by Claire Schaeffer-Duffy

July 17, 2000
Copyright © 2000 Telegram & Gazette Worcester, MA. All Rights Reserved.

The island of Vieques, 21 miles long and four miles wide, is very tiny. It is so tiny that if you looked for it on an average-sized map of the world you wouldn't see it.

If it's a good map and you had your magnifying glass and some patience, you might locate a tiny dot just east of that island marked Puerto Rico. That dot would be Vieques , and not some errant blob from a cartographer's pen as you might suspect.

In June of this year, our family traveled to the remote tropical islet and observed first-hand the ongoing conflict between the local populace and the U.S. Navy.

The Navy really likes Vieques. Its terrain, its surrounding deep waters, and its proximity to the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base on Puerto Rico 's largest island provide optimum conditions for rehearsing sea, air and land assaults. And I suppose that when the Navy confiscated two thirds of the island in 1941, it was delighted with the find.

There was, however, one small problem. In addition to the egrets, the brown pelicans, the sea turtles and the mangrove estuaries, human beings inhabited Vieques. U.S. citizens as a matter of fact.

The human element on Vieques proved to be particularly problematic for the Navy in 1957 when it decided that the Roosevelt Roads complex (which included Vieques ) would be the primary center for Fleet Guided Missile Training Operations in the Atlantic.

The people would have to move to make way for the missiles, and there were serious discussions between the White House and the governor of Puerto Rico about transporting all the Viequesans, the living and the bones of the dead, to some region in the island of Puerto Rico itself.

The governor cautioned against the idea, and the mayor of Vieques wrote a letter to President Kennedy opposing the disbanding of his little municipality with its population of 9,200. Kennedy was eventually dissuaded, and the inhabitants of Vieques were allowed to remain in the center of the island (their designated lot after the 1941 confiscation) while the Navy continued to store munitions in the west and bomb the eastern peninsula.

Whenever the islanders felt jittery or even hostile about all that experimental bombing, including trial runs of napalm and an accidental firing of depleted uranium, the Navy assured them that the six- to eight-mile buffer zone protected them from the hazards of war play.

But toxins don't respect a buffer zone. They seep into the drinking water. They float on the island's easterly winds that blow from bombing range to populace, and they infest the food supply.

Heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, and mercury, found in high concentrations on the target range, are showing up in the hair and feces of the islanders.

Dr. Diego Zavala, director of the Puerto Rico Central Cancer Registry, says that, on Vieques , there is a problem with cancer. It is significant enough to place the tiny island in the category of alert, according to guidelines established by the Center for Disease Control.

The red flags and dispatches from the scientific and medical community (there are far more than I have cited) confirm what intuition already knows: Bombing near civilians is deadly business.

Members of the House Armed Services Committee can't hear the clamor coming from miniscule Vieques . In March of this year, they called for a resumption of live fire bombing. Legislative director and defense specialist Bill Johnson seemed to think that cries of contamination do not give the Viequesans the right to vote on the future of their homeland.

There is this matter of national security and you can't, he argued, have a proxy vote on a national security issue.

What does the defense specialist expect the people of Vieques to do, live with the litter of undetonated bombs and breathe radioactive particles in silent resignation?

Our addiction to weapons has created a rather perverse paradox: We'll tolerate the contamination of our own citizens for the sake of our security. Evidently, some Americans are considered to be insignificant, dispensable to this unending quest for military superiority.

The people of Vieques, who oppose the Navy's bombing range, are challenging this cynical assumption.

Their tireless call for an end to cavalier military confidence in an age-old American belief that the voice of the people really does matter.

Let's join them in their struggle. We, who are politically weary, need their example of hope.

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