Vieques: the story behind the protests
May/June 2000

On May 4 U.S. federal authorities began to arrest protesters who had conducted a full year of civil disobedience to prevent U.S. Navy bombing and shelling of the island of Vieques. Missing from the mainstream news coverage was any sense of why members of the U.S. Congress and Puerto Rican Legislature, religious leaders, members of the community in Vieques, and many many others were willing to be arrested to prevent the resumption of the bombings on the island.

Here is some background which we hope will fill that gap.

After 400 years of Spanish colonial rule, Puerto Rico became a possession of the United States as a direct result of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Right after the invasion the US established a military government, which lasted up to 1900; thereafter, the Foraker Act of 1900 authorized the President of the United States to appoint a civilian governor. In 1917 the Jones Act granted US citizenship to all island residents. In 1948 Puerto Ricans were allowed to elect their own home-grown governor for the very first time. Today, after 101 years of direct economic, political and military rule, Puerto Rico continues to be a US colony. Given its geographical position, Puerto Rico has always played a key strategic military role for the United States.

In 1938 the US Navy began using the island-municipality of Vieques, right off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, for military practices. In 1941, during the height of WW II, the Navy initiated a campaign of forced expropriation of territory, which ultimately ended in their possession of over two thirds of the island's most arable land, thereby displacing thousands of families and seriously jeopardizing their basic means of subsistence. The Navy arbitrarily set the price for the expropriated land giving the island residents very little say, if any, in the matter. Resistance became an exercise in futility, for the Navy issued the following ultimatum: Either you accept the price set by the Navy or prepare to be evicted, by force, if necessary, within 24 hours. The net effect of these policies was the clustering of the entire civilian population of Vieques into a small strip of land right in the middle of the island. Thus the US Navy took control of over 75% of this tiny island.

Economic effects
Vieques has a population of approximately 9,400 inhabitants. It has an unemployment rate of almost fifty percent (50%) by most conservative estimates. General Electric, which is one of the few large companies in Vieques, will end its operations this summer. Fishing is the only industry in the island of Vieques with any truly viable economic significance. This is obviously due to the Navy's expropriation of the most fertile lands in the island that formerly sustained a respectable agricultural activity. Carlos Zenon, 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 ships' 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, which poses a severe environmental threat to the fragile marine ecosystem in that region. In 1977, for example, the US Navy destroyed 131 traps.

Ecological damage
The immediate effects of the bombings in Vieques are the destruction of delicate ecosystems in the island, which supports hundreds of species of plants and animals that are killed instantly upon the direct impact of the projectiles during military target practices. Furthermore, these bombings and military maneuvers lead to serious contamination of the environment due to toxic residues. In an article published in 1988, engineer and environmental consultant Rafael Cruz-Perez identified three ways in which the military's bombings pollutes the environment in Vieques: (1) Chemicals in the Missiles: explosive payloads, (2) Dust and rock particles released into the air as a result of the impact and/or explosion of missiles, and (3) Metallic residues left by missiles after they detonate, and the junk and scrap heap they use for target practice. "According to information provided by the Navy, this material is never removed...Under the effects of additional explosions and sea breezes, metals are oxidized or decomposed, turning in accelerated fashion into leachates that pollute the environment," said Cruz-Perez in his article. He also referred to a scientific study by the Navy, which says that the sources of drinking water in Vieques: Isabel Segunda village and Barrio Esperanza are polluted with toxic chemicals, like TNT, tetryl and RDX. Cruz-Perez commented that "the study doesn't explain how these substances got to the water sources, located more than fourteen kilometers away from the shooting area." In the 70's, the US Environmental Protection Agency sampled Vieques' air and soil. After studying the samples, the EPA determined that the air has unhealthy levels of particulate matter and the ground has iron levels above normal.

Cancer & health problems
The people of Vieques suffer from high levels of cancer and other serious health problems. Studies carried out by the Puerto Rico Department of Health have shown that from 1985 to 1989 the rate of cancer in Vieques rose to 26 percent above the rest of PR. Rafael Rivera-Castano, a retired professor from the University of Puerto Rico's Medical Sciences Campus, has documented an increase in extremely rare diseases, like, for example, Scleroderma, lupus, thyroid deficiencies, and not-so-rare ones, like asthma, which is significantly affecting Vieques' children. "How can the children of Vieques get asthma if this is such a small island? The winds that blow in from the ocean are rich in iodine, which prevents asthma. The only possible cause is air pollution. We don't have factories here, the only source of air pollution here is the Navy," he has stated.

The Struggle between David and Goliath
Vieques' fishermen are extremely courageous. They have confronted the warships at sea several times. In February of 1978, US admiral Robert Fanagan told the fisherman that they would not be allowed to fish during 3 weeks. All NATO countries had planned an intensive military maneuver along all of Vieques' coastline. Carlo Zenon informed him that they would protest. "Imagine me, a Puerto Rican fisherman, telling a US Navy admiral that we're going to cause problems for them," he said. On February 6,1978, fed-up with the Navy's arrogance, the fishermen of Vieques took a desperate gamble. Forty fishing boats "invaded" waters where target practice with live ammunition were about to begin. They were carrying out a struggle with the sling shot of David against the Goliath of NATO. They were successful in detaining the maneuvers and awakening the support of the entire Puerto Rican nation. This activism at sea has won important victories for the people of Vieques during their struggle against the US Navy.

Mount David
After David Sanes Rodriguez's death on April 19th, 1999, a group of civilians gathered in the area of the "accident" to protest the bombardments. This show of outrage and civil disobedience is a direct frontal challenge to the US Navy's ill-gotten authority. On April 21st a group of 15 boats gathered at the place of the bombings, placed a large cross and named the area Mount David--in memory of Mr. Sanes. Mount David is a very dangerous place peppered with live ammunition on the ground. In spite of the great dangers many people have organized protests behind the gates of the Navy's restricted areas. All these protests have successfully detained the bombings since Sanes' death. "I know that there is a great danger," said Pablo Connelly, one of the civilians protesting at Mount David. He adds: "I know that the risks are great, but all the risks are worth it. I do this for my children and for the children of all Viequenses and I know that during the time that I remain here there is not going to fall a single bomb in Vieques."

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