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Synthesis/Regeneration 25   (Summer 2001)

Puerto Ricans Battle US Navy in Vieques

by Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero, Institute for Social Ecology

On May 4, 2000, the Puerto Rican island-town of Vieques was the site of one of the strangest deployments of law enforcement and military power in the history of the United States. Just before dawn, hundreds of marines, marshals and FBI agents raided the island. By sunrise, hundreds of people had been detained, handcuffed and put in the custody of the US government.

Terrorists? Drug smugglers? Fugitives? Illegal immigrants? None of the above. They were ordinary citizens from all walks of life, including Catholic priests and nuns and Protestant ministers, many of them singing religious hymns as they were handcuffed and herded into trucks and boats.

Welcome to the battle of Vieques.

In 1941 the US Navy forcefully expropriated 26,000 of the island's 33,000 acres. In the 60 years that have followed, these stolen lands have been used as a munitions depot and a firing range. Although the Pentagon claims that it paid a fair market price for the lands it took, those local residents old enough to remember the day tell a different story. They claim that they were forcibly evicted, and in some cases were given only minutes' advance notice before their homes were bulldozed right before their eyes, and that those who were compensated received only a fraction of their properties' market value.

Those who were expropriated moved into the few lands in Vieques that remained under civilian control, to the nearby island of St. Croix, to the squatter shantytowns then proliferating in San Juan, or to American cities like New York. The island's sugar plantations closed overnight, and the population plummeted to less than ten thousand souls.

For the last 60 years, Vieques has been relentlessly subjected to bombardment from both sea and air. The startling sounds of heavy artillery, missiles and low-flying warplanes were often heard in residential areas. It wasn't just the noise. It was also stray bombs and missiles falling into the civilian area, causing hair-raising close calls and outright tragedies.

The Navy's opponents have repeatedly denounced that the military presence has caused an environmental tragedy in Vieques.

Stray bombs were not the only peril. The island's civilian sector was often visited by military personnel on leave looking for recreation, entertainment and women. They brought along with them drug addiction, prostitution and street violence, which were virtually unheard of in the island in the pre-Navy years. Not surprisingly, brawls and riots caused by Marines were not uncommon. In one such incident in 1953, drunken Marines broke into a private party and started a fight in which they kicked an old man to death. Street fights between civilians and American military personnel were frequent, and often degenerated into full-scale riots.

The protesters who were arrested in Vieques in May, 2000 had been occupying the navy firing range for over a year. Their act had been sparked by the accidental death on the evening of April 19, 1999 of David Sanes, a civilian Vieques resident who was killed by stray bombs presumably dropped by FA-18 fighter jets doing bombing practice on the island's firing range. Sanes was hardly a heroic martyr. At the moment of his death he was in an observation post in the firing range working for the Navy as a security guard. Ironically, his job was to keep trespassers out. But his death was the last straw for the people of Vieques. Within days, protesters with widely different backgrounds began camping in the range and chanting the slogan "¡Ni una bomba más!" (Not one more bomb!).

In the following months, over a dozen camps were set up in Navy lands. The groups of protesters, which included labor unions, peace activists, local fishermen, teachers, artists, the Puerto Rico independence movement, leftist organizations, the Catholic and Protestant churches, university students and environmentalists, turned the firing range from a school of war into a citadel of peace. They built wooden houses, a dock, a church, a school and even a dance hall, set up photovoltaic solar energy panels, carried out scientific studies of the impact of the Navy's activities on the local ecosystem, and performed concerts. A variety of religious, educational, and cultural activities took place, including the wedding ceremony of a couple that came together as result of the protest campaign.

Pollution and cancer

The Navy's opponents have repeatedly denounced that the military presence has caused an environmental tragedy in Vieques. "Vieques is the best example of destruction and environmental injustice in the Americas. The US Navy (has) destroyed coral reefs, thalasia beds, lagoons, mangroves, coconut groves, beaches, endangered species, fish and other marine organisms," declared the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques.

The 1999-2000 occupation of the firing range by protesters made it possible for experts from a wide array of disciplines to enter the area, until then barred to civilians, and carry out in situ studies of the Navy activities' impact on the local ecosystem. The grassroots organization Casa Pueblo, in partnership with UPR biology students, carried out studies of plants in the firing range and found that their tissues were polluted with lead, nickel, chromium, manganese, copper and cobalt. The team also studied the crabs in the area, and found that they had levels of copper, zinc, nickel, cobalt and cadmium well above those of crabs found elsewhere in Vieques.

According to the study, crabs in the Navy firing range have up to 80 times more cadmium than normal crabs in the eastern coast of the United States studied by the US National Marine Fisheries Service. These cadmium levels exceed those considered safe for human consumption by the US Food and Drug Administration, and exceed the maximum dosage considered safe by the World Health Organization by a factor of 1,000. Cadmium causes hypertension and kidney damage in humans, and is carcinogenic as well. The human organism does not need cadmium at all-once ingested it takes the body between 10 and 30 years to get rid of it.

As if all these environmental woes were not enough, Vieques had also been used as a testing site for munitions made of depleted uranium (DU). The Navy admitted that it had used DU ammunition in Vieques in a May 10 1999 statement in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Military Toxics Project. The use of DU ammunition constitutes "a crime against God and humanity," declared Doug Rokke, who directed the Pentagon's Depleted Uranium Project and wrote its Cleanup and Handling Protocol for Depleted Uranium. Rokke visited Vieques on June 2000.

According to a study carried out by the Puerto Rico Health Department, the cancer rate in Vieques is 26.9% above Puerto Rico's average. Apart from cancer, Vieques epidemiologist Rafael Rivera-Castaño also reports unusually high rates of other diseases, such as scleroderma, lupus, thyroid deficiencies and asthma.

A massive human rights violation

Two months before the April 19, 1999 tragedy, the Human Rights and Environmental Commissions of the Puerto Rico Bar Association held hearings in Vieques and heard testimony from different sectors of the local population. "Both Commissions found that the training maneuvers of the military threaten the very lives of the people of Vieques, in clear violation of international law. The toxic materials generated by the bombings deteriorate the health of local residents by causing cancer and diseases of the central nervous system, and destroy the natural resources of this island," said Bar Association president Eduardo Villanueva in a press conference.

...on August 20, 1980, the UN Decolonization Committee condemned the military maneuvers of the US Navy in Vieques, and demanded that the US government cease all its military activities in Puerto Rico.

In a report to the Bar Association, Human Rights Commission spokesman Fermín L. Arraiza-Navas called the Navy occupation of Vieques "a massive human rights violation." His report states that the US military is hindering the economic, social and cultural development of the people of Vieques, in open violation of the United Nations Charter, the 1993 Vienna Declaration on Human Rights, and Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to Arraiza-Navas, US government actions in Vieques contradict the commitments that the international community made in the International Conference on Development and Social Progress, held in Copenhagen in 1995. He also pointed out that on August 20, 1980, the UN Decolonization Committee condemned the military maneuvers of the US Navy in Vieques, and demanded that the US government cease all its military activities in Puerto Rico.

He went on to declare that "One would have to be blind not to conclude that the military maneuvers, bombings and provocations of the US Navy in Vieques violate basic parameters that are essential for the protection of human rights in Vieques as well as in the rest of Puerto Rico."

No picnic

The protesters who occupied the Vieques firing range from 1999 to 2000 knew full well that it would be no picnic. Once in the firing range, there was no water or food, or trees under which to take cover from the searing tropical sun. Except for cellular telephones, there was no real-time communication with the rest of Puerto Rico. In case of a medical emergency, a fisherman's boat could take as long as an hour to arrive and that long to get to the nearest civilian beach.

Perils included the navy's poisonous pollutants. This was ground zero, the place from where polluting substances—like TNT, tetryls, the carcinogenic RDX and radioactive uranium—traveled downwind and gave Viequenses their unusual and extreme health problems and their skyrocketing cancer rate. A protester could also accidentally step on an unseen live unexploded bomb. Last but not least was the ever-present danger of going to prison, or worse.

The struggle continues

The May 4, 2000 arrests didn't put an end to the Vieques protest. Since then, hundreds of protesters have defied the US government and reentered the firing range, spending weeks in federal prison for their "crime.". The new ultraconservative president George W. Bush and his Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld must learn that they can send all the repressive and police state resources at their disposal to Vieques, but the Puerto Rican people will not be content until the US navy puts an end to its activities there and cleans up the toxic mess it made.

Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican journalist and a Research Associate at the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont.

For more info: Vieques Libre: http://www.micronetix.net/virus/vieques.htm Vieques Support Campaign: http://palfrente.tripod.com/

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