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Thursday, 12 November, 1998, 11:06 GMT
Muddying the waters in Vieques
If there's one place where Puerto Ricans feel most acutely that they have only second-class citizenship of the United States, it's on the island of Vieques, seven miles off the eastern coast of the main island of Puerto Rico.
With its long white beaches, thick coconut groves and warm Caribbean waters, Vieques has all the picture-book elements of a tourist paradise. But while holidaymakers pour onto the nearby Virgin islands or the Dominican Republic, few visitors - or tourist companies - come to Vieques, and the islanders fear that few ever will.
"The mountainous terrain of the island, the beaches make it ideal for our folks to perform their mission in terms of training environment," says Bob Nelson, spokesman for the U.S. Navy in Puerto Rico. "For instance, aircraft carriers that participated in the Gulf War -- it's safe to say they came through Puerto Rico to train before they went to that real world mission."
Ismael's comments betray a feeling which seems to be shared by many islanders: that the real issue is not just the U.S.Navy. It's the whole ambiguity of Puerto Rico's status after 100 years as a U.S. territory.
Legally, though, the U.S. Navy has every right to be where they are. It was in August 1941 that the U.S. Congress approved a law - Public Law 247 -- which gave the U.S. Navy immediate possession of land on Vieques to build a base.
At that time the island's population was 14,000, mainly fishermen, small farmers and workers on a small but successful sugar plantation. When the military moved in, they took over the western and eastern thirds of the island: a total of 26,000 of the island's 33,000 acres. Thousands of families were forced off the land their families had farmed for centuries - often with only 24 hours warning. Large landowners were paid a lump sum and over 800 families who had no legal claim on the land where they lived were given around 30 dollars compensation.
Since it was no longer possible to live or work in the new military zone, thousands of islanders left Vieques to seek work on the main island of Puerto Rico, the U.S. or the Virgin islands. Ironically, it was only the intervention of human rights groups in the United States which prevented the remaining population from being forced out. Today, the entire population of Vieques - about 8,000 people -- is confined to a strip of territory in the middle of the island.
Nilda Medina, a science teacher at Vieques high school, fears that many of her young pupils will also emigrate."They think they have no future, because what they see is their parents without work," Nilda says. "We are a poor community, that's true. But even then, if we have the whole island, we can develop the island for the people of Vieques, so we can have more opportunity than we have now."
At the forefront of opposition to the Navy's presence are the local fishermen, who claim the bombardments severely restrict their ability to earn a living. "The military manoeuvres take place all year round, and during that time the Navy restricts the fishing areas to about a quarter of a mile," says Carlos Ventura, the President of the Vieques Fishermen's Association.
One of them, Angel Rodriguez was sent to prison in Florida and died in jail. Today he's seen by many as a martyr for the freedom of the island. Poems and songs have been written in his honour, and a special remembrance service is held annually.
Recently anti-military campaigners on the island have begun collating medical evidence which they hope will strengthen their case against the Navy's presence.
Dr Rafael Rivera-Castano, an epidemiologist who grew up on the island, says that despite the fact that there is no heavy industry on the island, many islanders are suffering from the kind of respiratory problems that you would normally only find in a large polluted city. He's convinced that the illnesses are caused by chemicals left behind in the air and water by the Navy bombardments.
De Castano says that a study by the Puerto Rican Department of Health has also shown that Vieques has a 27 per cent higher incidence of cancer than on the main island of Puerto Rico. He is now trying to organise a more in-depth study which he hopes will prove a definite link between the residue of explosives used around the island and cancer.
But those who oppose the military presence on Vieques are further frustrated by the attitude of those who conduct Puerto Rico's political negotiations with Washington - which is more pragmatic towards the benefits of having the military stationed in Puerto Rico.
"The move to Puerto Rico probably represents something between 40 and 50 million dollars into the economy," Governor Rossello says. "Obviously that's attractive to any state, and obviously to Puerto Rico."
26 Aug 98 | Americas
29 Sep 98 | Americas
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