May 7, 2001
Once again, the small island of Vieques, seven miles off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, has become the scene of large protests against the U.S. military. During the last week of April, federal troops and agents arrested about 200 people who were protesting the Navy's practice bombing of the island.
For the past 60 years, the U.S. Navy has been using this 52squaremile island for target practice, ignoring the fact that there are actually people living on the island. The Navy started to expropriate parts of Vieques during World War II in 1941. People who lived in the expropriated areas were told to either accept the price offered for their land or prepare to be forcefully evicted. In this way, the Navy took over 75% of the island, including some of the most arable land. Almost the entire eastern half of the island, now dubbed "Camp Garcia," was turned into a firing range for the U.S. military. On the western end of Vieques, the Navy set up an ammunition facility. What remained to the residents was a quarter of the island's land area, squeezed between the two military zones.
The continuous bombing of Vieques for six decades has had all the harmful effects that one would expect from such a practice. The land, sea and air are contaminated with highly toxic chemicals. Studies have shown an unusually high rate of cancer and a rare heart ailment called vibroacoustic disease, which is linked to high levels of noise, among the island's 9400 residents. In May, 1999, after information about the use of depleted uranium on Vieques became public, the Navy admitted firing 273 depleted uranium projectiles at the Vieques test site in 1998, during training for the bombing of Yugoslavia. Depleted uranium is linked to many officially "unexplained" illnesses, such as cancer, stillbirths, birth defects, memory loss, chronic pain, leukemia and more, seen among the veterans of the Gulf War in 1991. Similar ailments have been seen among soldiers from European countries sent to the former Yugoslavia.
The island is also littered with thousands of pieces of unexploded bombs, which occasionally cause accidents. One such accident happened in 1952, killing a child and wounding three others. Once in a while bombs or bullets miss their targets and come too close to people. In such an incident in April 1999, David Sanes, a civilian security guard, was killed by two 500pound bombs exploding near his post.
The death of Sanes sparked off a wave of protests two years ago, including massive demonstrations in Puerto Rico which drew tens of thousands of people. Hundreds of Vieques residents occupied the firing range and set up camps. The Navy and FBI eventually arrested the campers and cleared the range. Nevertheless, under the pressure of increased publicity, the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments signed an agreement in January 2000. The Clinton administration promised to abide by the outcome of a referendum, to be held in November this year, and close the bombing site by 2003 if the people of Vieques so decide.
In the meantime, however, the U.S. government has already reneged on one of its promises, that is, to stop the use of live ammunition on Vieques. And on April 27, a federal judge in Washington rejected the request of the Puerto Rican government to postpone the bombing until health study results from Vieques are evaluated by the Department of Health and Human Services. The judge said that there was not "enough evidence" yet that people on Vieques were being "irreparably harmed" by the bombing.
In other words, first people have to be "irreparably harmed" before anything is done. What good would stopping the bombing do then?
This is exactly the logic of a big, reckless, brutal military power which not only "tests" all these deadly bombs and harmful chemicals, but readily uses them on civilians around the globe, as it did on a large scale in Iraq and in Yugoslavia, just to name two of the more recent examples.