By DAVID BERNT
On June 14, President Bush, responding to heightened protests, announced he would order an end to the Navy’s bombing of the island of Vieques by May 2003. The U.S. Navy has used the island off the coast of the Puerto Rican mainland as a training ground for amphibious assault exercises.
The Navy currently occupies 70 percent of the 33,000-acre island for its training exercises. The Navy exercises have included the use of live ammunition and bombs.
“We don’t want the bombing stopped in 2003-we want it stopped now,” said Robert Rabin, a leader of the Committee for the Rescue & Development of Vieques. “The demands of the community are immediate and permanent cessation of all military activity, the removal of all military artifacts and equipment, and the decontamination and return of all lands to the people of Vieques.”
The 9300 residents of Vieques have endured harsh poverty and severe health risks as a result of the bombing on the island. Over 70 percent of the island’s population lives under the official poverty line. The island’s two major industries, fishing and tourism, have suffered as a result of the bombing. Fishermen are not allowed to fish during Navy exercises, and constant bombing has polluted the water around Vieques.
Vieques residents suffer from extreme health risks associated with the pollution caused by the use of bombs in Naval exercises. After over a half century of bombing, the soil in Vieques is contaminated by cancer-causing chemicals, including depleted uranium. In 1998 alone, the Navy fired at least 273 radioactive depleted uranium shells on the island bombing range.
In 1994, when the U.S. government was preparing for war in Yugoslavia, the Navy dropped 20,000 pounds of napalm on the island. The Navy has admitted to discharging environmental pollutants above legal levels, including arsenic, 6.6%; lead, 105%; and cadmium, 240%.
Vieques residents are 27 percent more likely to develop cancer then other Puerto Ricans. Certain forms of cancer have increased by 300 percent over the last 20 years. Vieques residents also have higher rates of scleroderma, lupus, thyroid deficiencies, asthma, and high blood pressure. Despite this, the Navy and the U.S. government continue to deny any connection between the bombing and health risks.
The Navy has used the island as a bombing range for over six decades. For years activists associated with the Puerto Rican independence movement have called for an end to the bombing.
The movement in solidarity with Vieques broadened to all sectors of the Puerto Rican population in reaction to the killing of David Sanes in April of 1999. Sanes, a resident of Vieques, was killed when a Navy bomb was misfired and hit a security post. Sanes’s death set off a series of mass demonstrations demanding an immediate end to the bombing.
One day after Sanes’s death, protesters headed by the Puerto Rican Independence Party entered the bombing range and set up camps forcing the Navy to suspend bombing. Mass protests, including a rally of 85,000 in San Juan, erupted across Puerto Rico and the United States. The protesters managed to suspend the bombing for over a year.
In May 2000, federal agents forcibly removed and arrested over 200 protesters who had refused to leave the bombing range, including Puerto Rican politicians, priests, nuns, and activists. The Navy resumed bombing in June 2000.
Protests continued, periodically disrupting bombing on the range. After the Navy resumed bombing after a two-month suspension in March and April of this year, 128 people, including prominent politicians and activists, were arrested for trespassing on the Navy’s property.
In late May, 100,000 Cubans rallied in solidarity with the people of Vieques in front of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana. The Cuban government also sponsored a resolution that was passed in the UN Committee on Decolonization calling on the U.S. government to stop the bombing immediately.
In response to these protests, Bush made his announcement “promising” to suspend the bombing in “a reasonable period of time.” Bush’s announcement differs little from a deal brokered by President Clinton last spring with the pro-statehood Puerto Rican governor that would have set up a referendum on the island with the options of allowing the Navy either to remain there or to end bombing forever by the year 2003.
The referendum would in fact have been non-binding, as it was the result of a presidential decree that could have been rescinded in the future. Similarly, Bush can take back his “promise” at any time.
Nevertheless, although Bush’s plan does not insure that the bombing will end, it should be seen as an indication of the strength of the anti-Navy movement.
U.S. rulers are concerned that the Vieques movement will spill over into a broader movement in favor of Puerto Rican independence. The movement has polarized Puerto Ricans, increasing consciousness of the adverse effects of U.S. imperialism.
The Navy occupation also has consequences elsewhere, as the range is used to practice imperialist war games. The Navy has used Vieques to train soldiers for invasions of Chile, Cuba, Vietnam, Panama, Iraq, and Yugoslavia, among other countries.
Activists plan to continue protesting until the Navy occupation ends once and for all. Ismael Guadalupe, a leading Vieques protester, announced that the presidential decision “in no way changes our plans in relation to the current maneuvers. We will continue the protest, the international denunciation, and the civil disobedience actions in order to defend our people against the dangers of bombing and other U.S. Navy activities.”
In order to win, the Vieques movement must continue to mobilize people in Puerto Rico and the United States. Only a broad movement, based on independent mass mobilizations, will force the Navy out of Vieques permanently. U.S. Navy out of Vieques! Stop the bombing now!