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EDITIONS
Thursday, 12 November, 1998, 11:06 GMT
Muddying the waters in Vieques
Fishermen on Vieques confront U.S. Navy officers in October 1998
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.

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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.

A sign on Vieques pointedly bans radar in the area
The reason is that for more than 50 years, more than two-thirds of Vieques has been used by the U.S. Navy for bombing practice and to stage full-scale training exercises using live ammunition. The Navy say Vieques is an essential part of their training activities. The island is the base for the inner range of the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility and has been used to train military personnel not just from the U.S. but from Britain, the Netherlands and other NATO allies. The island was used for a rehearsal for the invasion of Grenada in 1983.

"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."

Relations between fishermen and the authorities are strained and often lead to verbal confrontation
The Navy says it is does all it can to minimise the impact of its activities on the population and the environment. But many islanders disagree. They say the bombardments are destroying their stocks of fish, contaminating their drinking water --- and effectively killing off their community as more and more young islanders leave Vieques to search for jobs. "They control the land, they control the water, they control the air," says Ismael Guadeloupe, who teaches at the high school in Vieques and has spent six months in an American jail for his part in anti-military demonstrations. "This is a fight between David and Goliath¿.We have to be respected by the U.S.. We have to fight to defend our lands."

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.

Local residents have been busy erecting their own 'keep out' signs
On a day to day basis, the islanders try to make it clear to the military that they are not welcome. Signs parodying military notices are pinned up at the roadside. Appeals are launched to save the island's unique ecology, including its famous bioluminescent bay, which literally glows with marine life. And if the Navy strays onto territory the Islanders regard as "theirs" it can result in verbal confrontation.

Families Evicted

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.

This locally-produced T-shirt shows how high feelings run over the Navy's presence
"There are a lot of detonations. It causes the death of the fish themselves, and the fish traps are also ruined - and never replaced by the military¿ We believe the only way to deal with this issue - to solve this crisis, is by using civil disobedience." This civil disobedience reached its peak in the late 1970s. Between 1978-9 the Vieques Fishermen's Association organised several manoeuvres designed to block Navy target practices. In 1979 21 protesters from the island - including Ismael Guadeloupe - were arrested for trespassing on a Navy beach.

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.

Cancer Risk

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.

Governor Pedro Rossello is keen to reconcile the two sides
Pedro Rossello, the elected governor of Puerto Rico, sits in the city of San Juan on the main island, out of sight and out of earshot of whatever happens on Vieques. Governor Rossello makes no secret of his ambition to see Puerto Rico accepted as the 51st state of the Union - and he's keen to keep relations with Washington, and the U.S. military, as smooth as possible. Governor Rossello has been the main supporter of a proposal that Puerto Rico should play host to even more U.S. military personnel - when the Army South, currently stationed in Panama, will relocate in 1999. Their presence, he says, will enhance Puerto Rico's international prestige - as well as creating local jobs and business possibilities.

"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."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
WEBSITE EXCLUSIVES: Radame Tirado,
ex-mayor of Vieques, still remembers being moved on by the US Navy...
Puerto Rico's Governor, Pedro Rosello,
explains why he believes the Vieques problem is a minor one....
See also:

26 Aug 98 | Americas
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