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New York Daily News

Vieques Battle Is Far From Over


July 10, 2000
Copyright © 2000 New York Daily News. All Rights Reserved.

ARROGANCE CAN MAKE people seem dumber than usual.

The recent words of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) suggesting that the federal government put an end to the Vieques crisis by buying the rest of the island and displacing its 9,400 residents is a great example.

"I have a better idea: Let's buy Mississippi, force its residents out of their homes and give the state to the Navy to bomb it to their heart's content," says Jennifer Irizarry, a Puerto Rican graphic artist who lives in Flushing. "After all, Vieques has been bombed for 60 years already. Don't you think it is enough?"

The Navy has "owned" two-thirds of Vieques since the 1940s. It uses the island for training its Atlantic Fleet and it even lends the little island to other navies from many other countries to exercise on it. Viequenses think that it is high time for the federal government to bomb, shoot and strafe some other place.

Irizarry is angry but she is not a fool. She doesn't really expect Mississippians to have to leave their homes, nor does she want them to.

"People should not be pushed out of their homes in Mississippi or in Vieques ," she says. "What the Navy has to do once and for all is find an uninhabited place it can use as practice range - and leave people alone."

President Clinton and Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello signed an agreement by which the Navy would leave by 2003 if Vieques residents vote in a referendum to expel them. In the meantime, military exercises would go on with inert bombs.

Religious and civic groups in Puerto Rico want the referendum to take place next month. The Navy wants to push it as far back as possible. And who can blame the Navy? It knows it is not exactly popular.

A poll by the Catholic Church recently found that a whopping 88% of Vieques residents want the Navy out immediately, and only 4% agrees with giving it a three-year transition period. Of Vieques ' 9,400 inhabitants, only 7% are in favor of the Navy staying and using live bombs.

"I do not support the referendum," says lower East Side Councilwoman Margarita Lpez. "When something is unjust, you don't need to ask anybody anything. What you need to do is correct the injustice."

In April, Lpez took 120 of her constituents to spend a week on Vieques . Even though there were some Puerto Ricans in the group, the majority of the constituents were not.

"In two days they were already asking, 'How is it possible that our government is doing this to a group of Americans?' " Lpez says. "They could not believe the lack of medical services, the poverty, the unemployment. They were outraged."

How could it be otherwise? After six decades of the Navy's presence, 72% of the population of Vieques lives below the poverty level and 50% is unemployed. In the past 15 years, more than 1,300 warships and 4,200 aircraft have used Vieques as a target range. The number of Viequenses suffering from cancer is disproportionately high.

"People are still getting arrested," Irizarry says. "And the arrests will continue until the Navy goes somewhere else."

Validating Irrizary's words, a couple of weeks ago more than 160 people were arrested and charged with trespassing on the Vieques range. Since May more than 600 protesters have gone to jail.

Only Friday, Lpez and Bronx Councilman Jos Rivera held a press conference in support of a group of activists arrested on Wall Street last month as they protested the Navy presence in Vieques . The battle for Vieques is far from over.

Irizarry, and many more people like her, are neither arrogant nor dumb. Actually, they make a lot of sense, and Lott would be well advised to pay attention and stop acting like the proverbial "ugly American."

"After all, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens protected by the Constitution," Irizarry says.

YES, THEY ARE, although Lott - and many others in Washington - do not seem to know it. And as long as this is the case, the Vieques crisis will rage on.

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