By GERRY FOLEY
The U.S. Navy resumed its practice bombing of the island of Vieques, off the coast of Puerto Rico, on April 1, despite massive opposition among the Puerto Rican people to the Navy’s use of the island as a test range. The present exercises are scheduled to last until April 20.
In its April 2 story on the new bombing of Vieques and the protests against it, the London Guardian noted that Sila Calderon, the present governor of Puerto Rico, which in principle is a self-governing commonwealth, was elected largely on her promise of getting the Navy out of Vieques.
The Puerto Rican governor has accepted President Bush’s pledge to end the bombing by May 2003. But Congress passed a law in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to allow the Navy to use the island as a test range until it can find an alternative-that is, indefinitely.
The Navy resumed its bombardment with “inert bombs,” nonexplosive projectiles dropped for target practice. Nonetheless, environmental experts say that even inert bombs are a danger to the island’s inhabitants because they stir up toxic substances that have been deposited by 70 years of bombing, such as heavy metals.
There is ample evidence that toxics rained on the island have entered the local food chain and are causing cumulative damage. Cancer rates on the island far exceed the averages, obviously as a result of the pollutants deposited by the bombing. In fact, the outrage of the local population was exacerbated by a rash of cancer deaths that immediately preceded the resumption of the Navy’s exercises.
In 1999, a civilian guard was killed by an off-target live bomb. Following that, for two years the range was flooded by thousands of protesters, who tried to prevent the bombing by civil disobedience. They were eventually cleared by federal marshals.
In the first protests against the new bombing, five protesters have already been arrested. The Guardian reported complaints from the Puerto Rican Independence Party that the police attacked a March 30 vigil with pepper gas and rubber bullets. But the paper cast doubt on them, while playing up an alleged attack on a single pro-Navy demonstrator.
U.S. authorities have a long history of riding rough-shod over Puerto Rican and even U.S. public opinion to permit the Navy to continue its destruction of the island and its people. U.S. liberal political figures, like Black leader Al Sharpton and Robert Kennedy Jr. have been arrested for participating in protests on Vieques.
The extent of the protests on Puerto Rico and in the United States itself clearly has the military on the defensive. That is the reason for Bush’s promise, but the pressure will have to continue and broaden still further to force the Navy to quit the island.
The movement against the bombing of Vieques has now become part of the resistance to the United States militarization drive in the name of the “war on terrorism.” An April 7 noon protest called for at Jack London Square in Oakland, Calif., is one of the first actions called in the United States itself.