Vieques Imperialism at its Finest

Imperialism at Its Finest: Vieques, Puerto Rico

As you are reading this, bombs are being dropped on US territory, and hundreds of civilians are dying as a consequence of this. The bombs are being dropped on a small Caribbean island called Vieques, off the coast of Puerto Rico. No, Vieques, Puerto Rico isn't being bombed by a foreign country, however its being bombed by the US Navy for training exercises, and after 60 years of almost constant bombing, the people are getting fed up with this and they are protesting the government's abuse of human rights.

Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States of America. It lies a couple thousand miles off the coast of Florida. The island is roughly the size of Connecticut with several smaller islands surrounding it including the island municipality of Vieques, one of the larger islands to the east of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico used to be a Spanish colony until 1898 when Spain ceded the island to the United States after it lost the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans became American citizens in 1917 when Congress passed the Jones Act. Thus, Puerto Ricans are protected by federal law that protect all American citizens.

Ever since it was a Spanish colony, the island has always been a strategic point mostly due to its geographical location. The Army and Air Force and Navy have bases in Puerto Rico. The Navy has a base on the eastern coast of Puerto Rico called Roosevelt Roads Naval Air Station, which is the largest naval base in the world. Roosevelt Roads is also the headquarter of the US Navy's Atlantic Fleet. Just like Pearl Harbor was the headquarters of the Pacific Fleet back in World War II. The Navy also occupies most of the island of Vieques.

Vieques is an island 18 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico. Its 18 miles long and 5 miles wide at its widest point. It has an area of 33,000 acres, and a population of about 9,400 inhabitants. During the 1940's the Pentagon took over 75% of the island due to the government's power of "eminent domain". The Navy took the island's most arable land which was mostly used to grow sugar cane. The owners of the land (who were mostly sugar cane growers) were forced to leave their land and accept the government's compensation for the land (which was a fraction of the market value). The people either left the island, or were froced to live in a narrow strip of land in the middle of the island. The Navy has control over the eastern and western parts of the island. The Navy uses the eastern half of Vieques for the training of US, NATO, South American, and CARICOM allied forces. There, they conduct mock Naval battles; that includes amphibious landing exercises, submarine maneuvers, missile shoots, and parachute drops. The Navy also uses 195,000 square miles of airspace and ocean for their training. The Navy uses the western part of the island to store live ammunition which it uses in the exercises and sells to other countries.

Military occupation has devastated the lives of the people of Vieques. The troops train on Vieques on an average of 235 days a year, and up to 20 bombs and shells explode per minute on the island. After 60 years of constant pounding with live ammunition, including depleted uranium, napalm, and other toxic chemicals; the island's environment is highly polluted.

In 1976 the newspaper Newsday from New York reported that Michael Greenwood, a former U.S. military scientist, cited during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that the Navy accidentally lost a nuclear bomb in waters off the coast of Vieques in 1966. During the 70's the Navy used trained dolphins on failed maneuvers trying to pinpoint the nuclear device. The terrible menace of its plutonium to be released due to the water's corrosion is a time bomb for the Caribbean Sea.

According to the Puerto Rico Department of Health, the cancer rate is 27% higher in Vieques than the rest of Puerto Rico. This is believed to be due to the Navy's constant bombardment of the island which dumps heavy metals and chemicals into the soil, air and groundwater. A soil test of Vieques in 1999 found 16 metals, including arsenic, mercury, lead and cadmium. In August 1999, epidemiologist Dr. Rafael Rivera Castaño says, laboratory tests of a Vieques womanís hair found eight heavy metals. Dr. Castaño has also documented an increase of rare diseases such as Scleroderma, Lupus and Thyroid diseases.

The Navy also fired at least 267 rounds tipped with depleted uranium onto Vieques in March of 1999, a violation of federal law. The projectiles, which pierce armored tanks, were used during the Gulf War. Uranium-tinged dust, kicked up upon impact and eventually inhaled, is a suspect in health problems among Gulf War veterans and Iraqi civilians.

According to an study published by Rafael Cruz Pérez, the sources of drinking water in Vieques are polluted with toxic chemicals such as TNT, NO3, NO2, RDX and Tetryl. The cloud of contaminants generated by the explosions of bombs are dispersed by the winds in the explosion area, the fine particles become part of the atmosphere, and are transported through the air over great distances the study found that the effective concentration of particles over the civil area of Vieques exceeds 197 micrograms per cubic meter and therefore exceeds the legal federal criteria for clean air.

Vieques has an unemployment rate of almost fifty percent by most conservative estimates. General Electric, which is one of the few large companies in Vieques, will ended its operations in 2000. Fishing is the only industry in the island of Vieques with any truly viable economic significance. This is obviously due to the Navyís expropriation of the most fertile lands in the island which were used to grow sugar cane. Carlos Zenón, the former President of the Fishermen Association, said that when the US Navy ships enter the one-hundred-foot deep waters where the fishermen have their traps, "the ship's propellers destroy the buoys that indicate where the traps are." When that happens it is hard for them to find the nets. As a result, the nets stay at the bottom of the sea for eight or twelve months, attracting many fish that ultimately die in the traps. The US Department of Agriculture conducted a study of these traps and found that a single net collects from 4,500 to 5,000 pounds of fish in ten months. This poses a severe environmental threat to the fragile marine ecosystem in that region. In 1977, the US Navy destroyed 131 traps. The Navy also has caused harm to its tourism industry (or what's left of it) because many tourists complain about the noise of the bombings. Many claim that they came here to relax on a tropical island, and not a war zone.

The presence of the Navy in Vieques has also caused injuries and deaths of civilians. On April 4th, 1953 two Marines beat an elderly man, Mapepe Christian, to death. On February 8th, 1959, US soldiers severely injured 19 people at a birthday party.

In 1996, several bombs were dropped near a group of fishermen in the southern coast. One of the fishermen, René Hernández, was hospitalized with serious injures. On April 19, 1999, two 500 pound bombs were dropped by a Marine Corps pilot several miles off target. The bombs killed a civilian named David Sanes Rodríguez. The explosion also injured four other by-standers. Since the accident, several protesters made a memorial for David Sanes and placed a large cross on the site where he was killed. Several protesters have also gone into the Navy's restricted areas and camped there as an act of civil disobedience, (which was very effective for Gandhi) the protesters hoped to act as human shields to prevent any more bombings of Vieques. This protest was successful for a while until the Navy came with Marines and US Marshalls, and arrested the protesters. This was a mistake for the Navy, because the arrested protesters have acted as martyrs, more people are protesting the Navy's occupation of Vieques. During a referendum, on July 29 of this year, a vast majority of the people of Vieques have voted for the immediate end to the bombing practices and the removal of the U.S. Navy from the island. This referendum was called by the Puerto Rican government, but the US Congress were quick to disapprove it claiming that military policy should not be subject to popular vote. US officials who always decry the absence of democracy in countries they disfavor, are now condemning an election which many people in Puerto Rico recognized as democratic. Suddenly, "democracy" is not appropriate!

Recently George W. Bush stated that the Navy would leave Vieques soon, but this seems to be an empty promise. On Aug 1, the House Armed Services Committee approved a measure that will prohibit the closing of the firing range in Vieques until another site is found that is equivalent or superior. This new development is something officials say may take years. It has now been disclosed that the U.S. Navy does not plan to return lands stolen from the civilian population of Vieques during the sixty years of military occupation. Also, the Navy has stated to the press that the land where the Navy is operating in right now will likely remain under Navy control whether another site is selected or not because it may be needed in "the event of a national emergency."

The people of Vieques are victims of US Navy arrogance. They want to use the local island resources, but completely have no respect for the Puerto Rican people. The Native American Indians have suffered under the same, signing treaties only to be broken by the same government that agreed to them. I learned long ago that politics is the dirtiest game in the world, and the US government plays it best. The people of our great nation deserve better, for it is a government of the people, by the people, not of a chosen wealthy few who try to control the masses with their fist. The US government should respect the wishes of the people of Vieques and get out. Do your dirty laundry in someone else's backyard.


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