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National Catholic Reporter

Church Stands With People In Troubled Vieques

by Claire Schaeffer-Duffy

August 11, 2000
Copyright © 2000 National Catholic Reporter. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2000 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All Rights Reserved.

President Clinton's Jan. 31 directives concerning the use of part of Vieques , Puerto Rico , as a target range for the U.S. Navy troubled members of the House Armed Services Committee. In the months preceding the directives, Vieques was in a state of uproar. The little island east of Puerto Rico 's mainland had reached its saturation point for live ordinances, napalm and depleted uranium - the stuff of modem military maneuvers - and Puerto Ricans of all political persuasions wanted the Navy out. Clerics, politicians and housewives had joined others in a campaign of popular civil disobedience, camping in the Navy's restricted zone to prohibit the resumption of live-fire bombing practices.

But members of the House Armed Services were incensed over the president's willingness to let the Puerto Ricans determine the future of their homeland. The referendum, according to Bill Johnson, national defense specialist and legislative aide to the Armed Services Committee, would set "a terrible and very dangerous legal precedent." Referring to the Dugway Proving Grounds in the state of Utah that carries out chemical and biological testing, "which is worse than anything in Vieques ," Johnson asked, "What would happen if the Downwinders [a group of protesters] illegally occupy the base and say,

'We're not leaving until we bet a vote?' ... You can't have a proxy vote on matters of national security."

Does this mean that anyone living downwind from a toxic military project must simply bite the contaminated bullet?

Earlier this summer, the Caguas, Puerto Rico , diocese, led by Bishop Alvaro Corrada deI Rio, conducted a house-to-house survey of approximately one quarter of the island's population regarding the Navy's presence on the island. Of those polled, 88.5 percent favored the immediate departure of the Navy, 7.5 percent favored the Navy remaining and 4 percent favored the 3-year phaseout.

At the heart of Vieques residents' complaints are claims of environmental destruction and lethal contamination of water, air and ground soil. There is much evidence to support these claims. A study conducted by the Navy in the late 1970s found the carcinogens tetryl and RDX in the drinking water supply for the towns of Isabel Segunda and Esperanza. The study, however, did not say how those chemicals came to be in the water supply.

Puerto Rico 's Department of Health studied the island in the mid-1980s and found residents have a 26 percent higher cancer rate than the inhabitants of Puerto Rico 's mainland.

According to The San Juan Star, Nuclear engineer Frankie Jimenez's investigation of the Navy's bombing range on Vieques from October 1999 to February 2000 found at least nine different areas of significantly high levels of radiation. Jimenez's findings challenge the Navy's claim that a depleted uranium accident occurred only once on the island in a single area.

Francisco Rodriquez, Korean War veteran and a native of Vieques , believes that, for the Navy, the people of his island are "like laboratory rats." And indeed it seems the island has been a place of cavalier military experimentation. But Vieques is becoming an experiment in hope.

On July 5, Corrada del Rio traveled to Vieques and explained the results of the diocesan survey to the islanders. The diocese of Caguas will continue its poll and is launching training for a summer campaign of civil disobedience. One "action" includes bringing a statue of the Virgin of Mount Carmel, patroness of fishermen, into the Navy's restricted zone.

Fr. Nelson Lopez, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Vieques , says the church's alliance with the people of Vieques is "a matter of dignity, morality, a matter of life. The church has to defend the life and preach the Good News." May the hope in Vieques spread to Utah and beyond.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a member of the SS. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker community and writes for their publication, The Catholic Radical. She recently returned from a nine-day visit to Vieques . Her e-mail is

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