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From Draft NOtices, July-August 2000

VIEQUES: "Hey, how about some beads
and a blanket for that island?"

Paz en la Tierra Button

-Ray Wolf

It has been over one year since David Sanes was killed by an errant U.S. Navy bomb on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques (see Draft NOtices, July/August, 1999). The killing brought to a head decades of frustration and resentment from the residents of Vieques and other Puerto Ricans throughout the islands and the mainland United States. Tired of being treated like a colony, tired of being exposed to toxic metals and chemicals, tired of having their lives endangered by stray ordnance, and tired of being treated as second class human beings, the people of Vieques, and Puerto Rico as a whole, united in an effort to force the U.S. Navy from their homeland. For a moment, there seemed to be a faint glimmer of hope for success. President Clinton ordered the suspension of military operations on the island while a study was conducted to determine if the Navy needs to continue operations on Vieques. Hopes were high. But it was not to be. The U.S. Navy resumed bombing operations with "inert" weapons on June 24, 2000.

The resumption of the bombing and other Naval operations was the result of a "compromise" worked out between Clinton and his strong political supporter, Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Rossello. Under the agreement, the citizens of Vieques will vote on whether or not the Navy will be allowed to stay on the island and continue operations, or if the Navy must leave. At first, this sounds reasonable. However, under the provisions of the directive issued by Clinton, the "referendum will occur on May 1, 2001, or 270 days prior to or following May 1, 2001, the exact date to be specified on the request of the Department of the Navy" (italics added).

Assuming that the referendum actually takes place, Vieques' citizens will have two choices. "The first shall be that the Navy will cease all training not later than May 1, 2003. The second will permit continued training, to include live fire training, on terms proposed by the Navy." If Vieques decides that the Navy will leave, "Navy lands on the Eastern side of Vieques (including the Eastern Maneuver Area and the Live Impact Area) will be transferred within one year to the General Services Administration (GSA) for disposal under the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act." Conservation zones will be handled by the Department of the Interior. The GSA will then be responsible for the restoration of the lands in a manner consistent with the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act - including the sweeping of the Live Impact Area for ordnance to meet the same range standards as those used after the closure of the live impact area used by Naval Air Station, South Weymouth, Massachusetts. After the lands have been restored, the Government of Puerto Rico "may request" the return of the lands.

On the other hand, if the citizens of Vieques vote to allow the Navy to stay, "the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) will request congressional funding to further provide for the enhancement of infrastructure and housing on the Western portion of Vieques in the amount of $50 million" ($50 million was the figure contained in the directive posted on-line; all other reports indicate that the amount would be $40 million). Oooh, a tempting offer, but wait! There's more! Between the date of the directive (January 1, 2000) and the referendum, the OMB will also ask Congress for funding to conduct a Public Health Service study to review health concerns on the island, to complete the conveyance of 110 acres of Navy property to extend the runway at the Vieques Municipal Airport, and to maintain the ecosystem and conservation zones, as well as implement certain wildlife management plans in accordance with the Memorandum of Understanding of 1983 (which Clinton has admitted that the Navy has largely ignored for the past 17 years). Also, the Navy is required to submit legislation to Congress to transfer land on the western side of the island where the munitions dump is now located to the government of Puerto Rico.

Wow! The U.S. government is giving back land to the people of Vieques before they even vote. What a wonderful show of good faith! But there are a couple of catches. First, Puerto Rican and federal authorities must ensure that "the integrity and accessibility of the range is uninterrupted and trespassing and other intrusions on the range cease entirely" until the referendum is held. Of course, the Navy will only be allowed to train 90 days per year, and will only be allowed to use non-explosive ordnance. The second catch is that all of this "goodwill" is dependent on Congressional approval - something that may never happen.

It appears that Congressional Republicans are a bit miffed that Clinton made any concessions to Puerto Rico. Without Congressional support, the Clinton-Rossello agreement is worthless. Indeed, one Republican congressman, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has apparently confused Vieques Island with Manhattan Island. If Lott has his way, the federal government will simply buy the rest of Vieques and relocate the 9,400 residents. Then the Navy can bomb the whole island. Now there's an idea. Maybe Lott hasn't confused Vieques with Manhattan, after all. Perhaps he has confused it with Bikini Atoll. Also worth noting is that for the most part, no U.S. entity has to take any action until well after the upcoming elections. This is perfect for the Clintons -especially Hillary, who probably cannot win election to the Senate without the support of New York's Puerto Rican community. Plus, Congress will probably balk at the idea of any substantial funding for Vieques. Then the Navy stays in Vieques (because the referendum will never happen) and the Clintons can blame it all on the Republicans - how convenient.

So what do the people of Vieques think about the Clinton-Rossello agreement? They're less than enthusiastic. Protesters occupied the Vieques bombing range continuously from April 19 until their forced removal by FBI Agents, U.S. Marshals, 1200 U.S. Marines, and Puerto Rican authorities in May of this year. However, protests in various forms are continuing. There were attempts to disrupt the bombing practice that took place during the weekend of June 24. Activist Hector Rosario conducted a fast outside of the White House (his letter to Clinton was accompanied by a letter of support from the Dalai Lama). A group of 13 Chicago residents touring a Navy ship lined up and donned T-shirts that spelled out "NO-N-A-V-Y-I-N-V-I-E-Q- U-E-S!" Protesters temporarily blocked the entrance to the bombing range. Vieques supporters blocked the entrance to the United Nations headquarters in New York City. U.S. military veterans from Vieques returned their service medals and discharge papers; in their letter to Clinton explaining their reasons for returning the medals and discharge papers, the veterans wrote:

Maybe what was once a brave and noble democratic republic has become an arrogant and decaying empire, a shameful caricature of oppressive power and villainous corruption. But whatever the case may be for you and your country, Vieques is not for sale and will never be. Vieques is not negotiable. Neither forty million nor forty billion dollar bribes will buy our consciousness. And if many of us went as far as ten thousand miles waving the swords of war for your country, then you better believe that we can travel ten miles to the Navy firing polygon waving the white banner of peace for Vieques.

íPaz para Vieques, Ahora! (Peace for Vieques, now!)

If there is still any doubt about the resolve of the people of Vieques, consider this from activist Carlos Zenon, whose family once lived on the land that the Navy now bombs: "They destroyed my mother's house with a bulldozer and they forced us out. I've never forgotten. I'll keep fighting until they go." In addition to the protests, several lawsuits have been filed. Puerto Rican Bar Association lawyers have a filed civil suit on behalf of Vieques plaintiffs to get the Navy off the island based on environmental, human rights, and civil rights violations. New York lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr. also added a memorandum of support to the suit. In addition, Kennedy has filed a notice of intent to sue in the name of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the New York Health and Human Services Union 1199, as well as several local citizens and organizations. Yet despite the protests and lawsuits, the Navy insists that the people of Vieques actually want them to stay!

According to an Associated Press article, "The Navy disagrees with protesters' objections and insists that the opposition is coming from only a small minority of Puerto Ricans, most of whom don't live on Vieques." While Clinton claims that he "didn't inhale," it seems as though at least one Navy official has inhaled more than his share. A poll conducted by the Catholic Church shows that 88% of Vieques residents want the Navy to leave immediately, 4% are willing to give the Navy three years to leave, and a mere 7% are in favor of the Navy staying and using live ordnance. From the poll it's obvious that, contrary to the Navy propagandists, the vast majority of Vieques want the Navy out, now! As for whether or not the protesters' objections are valid, two separate environmental studies show that they are, unlike the Navy, right on target. One study conducted in February and March by the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and reported by The Vieques Times concluded that, "the bombing - including the bombing with inert ordnance - and amphibious landings has dispersed and moved heavy metals to civilian zones. 'It has been documented that the base of the food chain in Vieques has been impacted by the absorption of metals in plants and vegetables according to analysis of roots, stems, leaves, and fruitů,' said [Arturo] Massol, a biologist who developed the study." A separate year-long study conducted by the UPR Graduate Planning School drew similar conclusions, and added that Vieques residents had an abnormally high concentration of various heavy metals and other toxins within their bodies.

How is the United States government handling the protesters, you ask? By arresting them, of course. Since May 4, when authorities removed protesters that had camped out on the bombing range for more than a year, about 600 people have been detained, including those who attempted to disrupt the most recent exercises conducted in June. The 183 protesters arrested in June were freed temporarily and given until June 30 to post $1000 bail. However, 122 of the protesters refused to pay the bail. Puerto Rican Senator Manuel Rodriguez Orellana stated that, "We do not recognize any moral authority nor the legitimacy of the U.S. court in this matter." Further, Orellana feels that the arrests "unmask the repressive and intimidating character of the process." As of Wednesday, July 5, U.S. Marshals have hunted down and arrested 90 of the 122 protesters - mostly in their homes.

So here I am on the Fourth of July, writing an article about the oppressive actions of the U.S. government (again), listening to Bob Marley on the stereo, and trying to ignore the fireworks and celebrations going on at the city park. However since it is "the Fourth," I can't help but wonder what the signatories of the Declaration of Independence would have thought of the Vieques situation. I mean, if they were alive today, who would they side with? Would their sympathies be with a group of people who are trying to kick out the occupying navy of an imperialist government, or would they side with the occupiers? I wonder. In any case, I think I'll finish with a quote from Marley, "Get up! Stand up! Stand up for your rights! Don't give up the fight!" íPaz para Vieques!


Information Sources: Associated Press, December 3, 1999, April 28, June 22 and 27, July 2 and 5, 2000; "Directive to the Secretary of Defense and Director, Office of Management and Budget: Resolution Regarding Use of Range Facilities on Vieques, Puerto Rico (Referendum and Community Assistance)," www.pub.whitehouse.gov; Interview of the President by Telemundo: Press Release, November 5, 1999, www.pub.whitehouse.gov; Letter to President Clinton, Veterans for Peace, Puerto Rico Chapter; New York Daily News, June 30; Pastors for Peace Vieques Project, www.ifconews.org; The Puerto Rico Herald, June 20; Vieques Libre, www.viequeslibre.org; The Vieques Times, May 2000; Weekly News Update on the Americas, Issue 515.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (www.comdsd.org).
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