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Vieques, Puerto Rico, USA

by ismalia guitierrez

The US military possesses a dream come true: a unique opportunity to conduct live munitions training for the air, land and sea forces simultaneously. This dream translates into a nightmare for the large community of residents on the Puerto Rican Island of Vieques. These residents are restricted to the midsection of Vieques, a mere one-third of an island twice the size of Manhattan. The US Navy ended up paying \$25 per acre for the land in the 1940s and uprooted tens of thousands of island residents. Those who refused to relocate to the Virgin Islands (Navy's advice to residents) were left to fend for themselves, trapped between nuclear radioactivity on one end of the island and electro-magnetic radiation on the other end, without medical services or on-site government assistance. I'm talking right now, to-day.

Consensus regarding the ultimate political status of Puerto Rico, an "unincorporated territory" of the United States, as either a state-in-the-making or a symbiotic modern colony is becoming harder and harder to imagine. But the injustice of the military occupation of Vieques is undeniable. The 24-hour land, sea and air bombings result in death, dismemberment and gross environmental destruction. Many "accidents" go unexplained. The US further molests the island by advertising and renting it as a test-site resort for foreign military forces. Public opinion over the issue has been unanimous. At the very least people are calling for immediate cessation of live munitions testing, but most people are demanding the complete withdrawal of the military from Vieques. The Puerto Rican government's special commission on Vieques declared four goals for the island: 1) Demilitarization, 2) "Devolucion"-returning the land to the residents, 3) Decontamination of the testing grounds paid for by the Department of Defense, and 4) Development of a sustainable infra-structure for Vieques. The United States military is under no obligation to answer to Puerto Rico's demands, nor to modify their operations in any way. As slickly as US colonialism is spun today, Vieques is a neon sign that Empire is still a way of life.

Vieques residents and other outraged Puerto Ricans are fighting back by occupying the target and drop-zones of the island. This mass act of civil disobedience began in April 1999, after a civilian was killed by a accidentally dropped bomb. Four months later, the civilian occupation has continued to grow and has been actively supported by the Puerto Rican government and international officials. Several elected Puerto Rican politicians have joined in the occupation of non-civilian areas of Vieques.

In the past, the only statement released by the Navy (Memorandum of Understanding 1983) stated that the military should improve its community outreach, to be more neighborly in order to show Puerto Ricans that "we are the good guys." The MOU was part of the settlement agreement in a lawsuit brought against the Department of Defense by the then-Governor of Puerto Rico Carlos Romero Barcelo. Despite the urgent public interest at stake in the suit, the settlement seemed to provide little to the residents of Vieques. Two years after that statement, we see that Puerto Rico nearly tripled its revenue from defense contracts. In the 1980’s, this money remained in San Juan while Vieques languished in decade long neglect. Might the US military placate the Puerto Rican Government with more neighborly money? Colonialism is dirty business.

We can't limit our outrage to demilitarization of Vieques. No one wants live bombing in their neighborhood. If Puerto Rico successfully kicks out the US Navy, the Navy will find another deal, another test site that will squeak less. The military-industrial complex must be dismantled, so that we do not accidentally push the detrimental consequences of that system onto a community more willing to bear the abuse.

Post-script: I just heard over the radio that Clinton has ordered the release of 11 out of 15 Puerto Rican political prisoners currently being held in federal prisons. Many of them have been held for over 20 years. I'm sure a good number of them will head on over to the Vieques occupation, much to the chagrin of fence sitting politicos in D.C. including Resident Commissioner Romero Barcelo (he is the closest thing Puerto Rico has to a congressman). This is the same politician who settled the 1983 lawsuit in exchange for a dramatic increase in defense contracts.

ismalia gutierrez is a student in the public interest law program at UCLA.

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