[News] Puerto Rico - Vieques 12 Years Later: Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu May 7 11:38:59 EDT 2015

Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan 

  Vieques 12 Years Later: Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied

Posted: 05/06/2015 11:56

Twelve years ago if you happened to be standing at the top of Monte 
Carmelo in Vieques, Puerto Rico, you would notice something different. 
Perhaps you would notice the collective sigh of relief, of hope, of 
victory. Or that the wave of visitors being arrested and detained in 
masse had eased after the United States finally decided to close its 
military base that had been used for bombing practice. However, standing 
there today you may still see bombs exploding as the result of 
detonation, or hear that local lands remain in federal hands or notice 
that the ferries from Vieques to mainland Puerto Rico are full of 
Viequenses seeking health services, many for complicated and serious 
illnesses. Over 70 years after the arrival of the Navy in Vieques, some 
have called the compounded and continuous human rights violations on the 
island a crime against humanity <http://vieques.elnuevodia.com>.

On May 1, 2003, the United States Navy finally closed its naval base, 
the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Area in Vieques after 60 years of 
using the island to carry out military practices that included live 
target practice involving bombing and the use of biochemical agents such 
as Agent Orange, depleted uranium, napalm and white phosphorus. The 
Navy's arrival in 1941 lead to mass displacement and the expropriation 
of about 75 percent of the island. For decades, Viequenses were exposed 
to toxic chemicals, including heavy metals, that have contaminated their 
bodies, land and water. The killing of David Sanes, a civilian guard on 
duty in the Naval base, by a 500 pound errant bomb set off a wave of 
protests, civil disobedience and arrests by thousands of Puerto Ricans 
and visitors from across the world who said "basta ya!" to the military 
legacy and toxicity of the Navy's presence and activities. After several 
years of consistent protests and visits by prominent figures, the U.S. 
government finally succumbed to international pressure and closed the base.

While many remember that victorious moment, the modern-day realities 
facing Viequenses are less known. The people of Vieques continue to 
suffer from disproportionately high rates of grave illnesses, including 
cancer, hypertension, kidney failure, asthma and other respiratory 
illnesses. The level of health services in Vieques remains what it was 
twelve years ago. A small percent of the lands controlled by the federal 
government have been returned to local control, while the overwhelming 
majority were merely transferred from one federal agency to another.

As a result of the extreme health and environmental damage caused by the 
Navy's practices, Vieques was declared a Superfund 
site by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2005, meaning the site 
requires a special protocol for cleanup and decontamination procedures 
because of its level of toxicity. Despite such protocols, the Navy and 
its contractor, CH2MHill, engage in the use of open-air bombing as a 
means of detonating found munitions. They also engage in the 
questionable practice of open-air burning 
of vegetation as an economical means of finding munitions, both of which 
have been criticized as exacerbating existing environmental and health 
damage. There exists no adequate civilian oversight mechanism for a 
community of dominant Spanish speakers who have been isolated and 
disengaged from participating in the cleanup process and understanding 
its ramifications.

The United States has consistently maintained a position of 
non-liability for its actions in Vieques. The Agency for Toxic 
Substances and Disease Registry, part of the Center for Disease Control, 
has been heavily critiqued by scientists and Congress 
alike for it's "finding" of no ''credible scientific evidence'' to 
support a relationship between decades of military toxic use and 
civilian health consequences and environmental damage. The Navy 
continues to insist that open-air detonation of bombs does not 
contribute to air pollution since the chemicals released are already 
naturally occurring; however they are quick to caution residents and 
visitors not to approach or touch such munitions. They have been 
suspected of engaging in open-air burning of vegetation to quickly 
locate munitions at a fraction of the cost, an act that the EPA has 
said would be unlawful under local law (the Navy has admitted that even 
tearing up the dense vegetation 
to clear the remainder of the debris would hurt the nature reserve, much 
less burning it). In the many lawsuits filed against the United States, 
including one by LatinoJustice years ago, the government has 
consistently asserted the antiquated defense of sovereign immunity, 
insisting their actions are justified by national security reasons and 
therefore not subject to judicial scrutiny. There are no longer domestic 
forums available for Viequenses to seek justice, which is why we have 
the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous organism 
and quasi-judicial human rights body of the Organization of American 
States, to look into the situation.

After almost 75 years of exploitation, the people of Vieques have been 
very clear in their demands: return of all federally controlled lands to 
the people and municipality of Vieques; adequate and thorough 
decontamination of all land and water; demilitarization of their land; 
and locally controlled development. None of those demands have yet been 
met in full. Just this month, a group of independent scientists met in 
Puerto Rico to discuss their ongoing concern regarding the state of 
health and environmental damage in Vieques. And their concern is 
well-founded - the Navy estimated that they have so far removed 90,000 
munitions items; 40,000 of which have been destroyed through demolition. 
However it has been estimated that the cleanup could take another 14 
years <http://www.epa.gov/region02/vieques/may2013viequesupdate_.pdf>, 
and even then the Navy presumes that not all munitions will be found, 
"regardless of the level of cleanup." Instead, the Navy has proposed 
posting warning signs or fencing off areas from the public, which would 
limit any potential use of the land and relieves them of any 
responsibility for possible ecological damage that may surface in a 
toxic site left contaminated and unattended.

Concretely, the United States must be held accountable for its actions 
that have intentionally violated the most fundamental human rights of 
the people of Vieques and have led to loss of life and compromised 
health. The United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization has 
consistently called for 
<http://www.un.org/press/en/2014/gacol3269.doc.htm> an adequate 
decontamination effort in Vieques and return of the lands to local 
control. This past week, several members 
of Congress called for the U.S. to reexamine its efforts and commitment 
to the people of Vieques. There have been renewed calls by the 
scientific community 
to ensure that the U.S. adequately funds a full and complete 
decontamination effort in Vieques, not just a cleanup (the Navy has 
consistently stated that for ten years it has spent close to $20 million 
per year in Vieques, yet "cleanup" has not necessarily meant 
"decontamination"). And the people of Vieques have consistently demanded 
that their own government of Puerto Rico address and remedy the lack of 
adequate health services in Vieques, which forces residents to spend 
hours and sometimes days traveling to the main island to seek 
healthcare. Despite a resolution 
<http://www.camaraderepresentantes.org/imedida.asp?r=RKC0039> from the 
Puerto Rican House of Representatives reaffirming their commitment to 
justice in Vieques, residents have yet to see concrete actions taken on 
their behalf.

The United States, which was one of only four countries that recently 
opposed the United Nations General Assembly's fifth resolution on 
depleted uranium 
has yet to put forward or implement a comprehensive plan that would 
adequately address the health, environmental, land use and economic 
concerns residents of Vieques have that stem from decades of military 
use and abuse. In 2013, Congress approved legislation 
that asked the Navy to make public and easily accessible historical 
records on the use, type and frequency of munitions used in Vieques, a 
request that has still not been satisfied.

In 2008 when then Senator Obama was campaigning, he pledged 
to "closely monitor the health of the people of Vieques and promote 
appropriate remedies to health conditions caused by military activities 
conducted by the U.S. Navy on Vieques." Today, seven years after that 
promise and 74 years after the invasion of the Navy in Vieques, justice 
remains delayed and denied. The "appropriate remedies" mentioned by 
Obama must mean economic, environmental and health justice with the full 
input and participation of the people of Vieques. And not in several 
years when yet another generation will struggle with high rates of 
asthma, respiratory illnesses and developmental and learning 
disabilities (known side effects of exposure to mercury), as young 
Viequenses currently do. The United States and the government of Puerto 
Rico must look beyond the bare minimum required to "cleanup" Vieques, 
and instead must adequately fund, support and facilitate a full 
decontamination and health effort. Anything less is ineffective and 
unjust. After decades of battling the residual toxicity left behind, 
residents demand a true "paz para Vieques", which is only possible 
through justice.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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