Vieques: Big Resistance from a Small Island
By Moraima Rivera, a native, farmer and activist from Puerto Rico.
Vieques is a small island off Puerto Rico. For 60 years it has been a bombing range for U.S. and NATO militaries. People in Vieques suffer from high contamination, cancer, asthma problems, skin sickness and the continuous sounds and vibrations of explosions.
In 1941, Congress passed a law giving the island to the U.S. navy. They expropriated 26,000 of the island's 33,000 acres. Thousands of families were removed from where they had lived for generations. Some had only 24 hours to leave.
This caused the decline of a flourishing, agricultural society that grew rice, sugar cane, fruits and vegetables. Thousands emigrated to find employment. In 1947, the plan to relocate the whole population failed.
In 1999, a bombing mistake killed David Sanes, an island native. This called the world's attention to our struggle. All sectors in Puerto Rican society demanded that the bombing be stopped immediately and that the lands be decontaminated.
Hundreds of Puerto Ricans and people from other countries used their bodies to stop the bombardments. Thousands have been arrested and punished with long prison terms for doing civil disobedience. Those arrested have included Senators, actors, artists, farmers, women, lawyers, mayors, President of the Independence Party, Vice President of the Pro-Statehood Party, religious leaders, Vietnam war veterans, Robert Kennedy, Congressmen and the wife of Rev. Jesse Jackson. The mayor of Vieques is now serving 4 months. An environmental leader was jailed for one year in inhuman conditions.
Sentences are abusive for minor offences like trespassing. Bail ranges from $500 to $30,000. Videos show physical abuse and sexual harassment by the Navy after arrest.
Solidarity actions have occurred in the U.S., Chile, Colombia, England, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, India and elsewhere. For more than a year, civilians put peace camps in the restricted zone. Two camps are still there. Local Puerto Rican police and U.S. Navy machine guns are pointed, ready to shoot.
Vieques has 9,400 inhabitants. They must live in a narrow buffer zone between exploding bombs and a huge munitions depot holding 4000 tons of explosives.
The U.S. Navy generates more than $100 million per year by renting Vieques to foreign military fleets. In solidarity, Argentina and Venezuela have pulled out. The sea near the island is being destroyed, killing species from the Atlantic to the Caribbean near Venezuela.
The bombing range covers 900 acres, including keys, forests, beaches, two blue lagoons and phosphorescent bays. Cayo Conejo, has the only brown pelican in Puerto Rico. Alcatraz Rock has a nesting site for terns. Many whales, turtles, fish and birds have been killed. In 1936, there were three large lagoons, coconuts, a lush plantation and many archeological sites, where our native forefathers lived in contact with nature. Pre-Columbian pottery has been found. Beautiful coastal forests, cacti, flowers, insects, lizards, vines, palms and grasses have been destroyed.
Three lagoons are now contam-inated by unexploded ordnance, craters and pieces of targets. Years of bombing have altered the topography and covered offshore coral reefs and sea grass with toxic sediment. Unexploded rockets and cluster bombs were found. Trucks, tanks, cranes, airplanes and targets pollute the area. In 1999, the Military Toxics Project described three places where the U.S. Navy tests Depleted Uranium (DU) munitions: Tolu Shima Island, Okinawa and Vieques where it is blown towards the population. These particles, when inhaled, can cause cancer. Napalm has burned whole areas. Tests have found high concentrations of arsenic, barium, cadmium, cobalt, copper, chromium, lead, mercury, cyanide, nickel, vanadium and zinc.
The rate of cancer in Vieques is 25% higher than Puerto Rico. The drinking water is contaminated. There is a higher incidence of lupus, asthma, scleroderma, telarquia, kidney and heart disease, and child mortality.
People must travel to Puerto Rico to get medical services. For 20 years, children haven't been born in Vieques. This detaches them from the island. Clinton and Bush both said they will leave the island in 2003. A referendum was conducted on July 29 by local government and 68.9% called for an immediate stop to the bombing. The Navy wants another referendum. It is tampering with our elections. They are pouring money into media and public relations, giving money, offering jobs and business options to buy votes.
Many years of sacrifice and civil disobedience by militant civil and political organizations have helped limit military activities. This was recognized by a unanimous resolution of the UN Committee on decolonization on July 1, 2000. This year's resolution:
"Encourages the U.S. government... to order the halt of its armed forces military drills and manoeuvers on Vieques Island, return the occupied land to the people of Puerto Rico, halt the persecutions, arrests and harassment of peaceful demonstrators, respect fundamental human rights, such as the right to health and economic development, and decontaminate the impact areas."
The U.S. Navy invaded in 1898. They destroyed our local economy and forced us to carry their citizenship and to send our boys to war. We are the last colony in the Caribbean. Through 102 years of resistance we kept our language and culture. We are a nation. Colonialism is an offense, a crime. How can people have self-determination when the system teaches people to accept and celebrate colonialism as a treasure?
The political persecution of democratic organizations and more than a million people by the FBI, is shameful for the U.S., that proclaims itself a guardian of human rights. Too many have been jailed for having a Puerto Rican flag. Thousands were killed.
Source: Presentatation at the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade's Vigil for Nonviolence, Oct. 6, 2001, in Ottawa.