Clinton Disappoints Vieques

The 58-year history of the U.S. Navy's occupation and bombardment of Vieques is a chronology of abuse of power, fatal errors and broken promises which began in 1941 and climaxed on the April 19 bombing raid that killed civilian David Sanes.

On Friday, President Clinton disappointed the Puerto Rican nation when he refused to order the withdrawal of all U.S. military forces from the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. It is no wonder that the people of Puerto Rico rejected Clinton's decision to continue bombing in Vieques for at least five more years. Clinton's refusal to permanently stop Navy bombardment let down the thousands of people who have been waiting for decades to reclaim the land they lived on before they were forcibly moved out by the U.S. Navy.

On Nov. 12, I met Carlos Zenon, a fisherman who has been struggling to rid Vieques of the Navy's constant shelling and bombing as part of their military exercises on the island. He told me how when he was a three-year-old boy living in Vieques, a Navy representative came to his house informing his mother that her house and land had been expropriated by the Navy. She was given 24 hours to leave her home. The following day Zenon saw his mother weeping inconsolably as a Navy bulldozer toppled their home. Like Zenon, more than 10,000 people were driven from their land and forced to relocate to make room for the new military installations in Vieques which would end up controlling 72 percent of Vieques' territory.

But Navy abuse of power in Vieques is not limited to the relatively far past of the '40s; all of the 9,300 people living in Vieques have experienced the negative effects of Navy occupation of the island. The people of Vieques live in a place where the cancer rate is 27 percent higher than the rest of Puerto Rico; 50 percent of the people are unemployed and 70 percent of the people live under the official poverty line. Vieques, where fishing has been an essential livelihood for hundreds of years, is greatly affected when most of its waters are kept off-limits during 250 days of the year. This begs the question: would the Navy force residents of Martha's Vineyard to live under these conditions? The answer is an obvious no.

When the Navy's incompetence resulted in the April 19 death of David Sanes, the struggle of the Vieques people caught the eye of international journalists all over the world, and all political parties and civic groups of Puerto Rico joined under the slogan "Not a single bomb dropped in Vieques." Viequenses saw that for once in three generations they had a fighting chance to rid themselves of a Navy that had totally disregarded their well-being for 58 years.

In the margins of a letter written to the president by Puerto Rican Senator Ruben Berrios demanding the withdrawal of U.S. military personnel from Vieques, President Clinton wrote "This is wrong." In view of the president's agreement with the unanimous position of all political groups in Puerto Rico, his decision to permit bombing in Vieques to continue for the next five years is tantamount to a judge who tells a wife-beater: "Beating your wife is wrong, it is detrimental to your marriage and to her health, I recommend that you stop beating her by the year 2004."

My use of the word "recommend" is not accidental. Clinton's decision is an imposition to the people of Puerto Rico because it will mean that bombing in Vieques will occur for the next five years. But to the Navy it is only a recommendation that any following U.S. President can disregard, because following presidents will not be bound by Friday's decision. The end of this five-year time period will coincide with the next presidential election. Conservative Americans who fervently defend U.S. military interests will be able to exert much more pressure than Puerto Ricans, since we are not a part of the U.S. electoral process. Indeed, the will of the Puerto Rican people, supported by a past Congress, has been ignored for the past 18 years. In 1981, Congress gave the Navy five years to find reasonable alternatives to Vieques for its military training. The Navy has yet to propose an alternative to its bombing ranges in Vieques.

Thus, it is perfectly understandable that the people of Vieques and all Puerto Rican politicians (without a single exception) called President Clinton's decision "unacceptable." Puerto Ricans don't trust a Navy who is not bound to President Clinton's recommendation since they fear the Navy will convince the following president to heed their will to stay in Vieques.

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