The U. S. Navy Must Leave Vieques, Puerto Rico

by Julio A. Rosario (Copyright (c) 05/04/00)

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To the government of the United States, national security is more important than human rights. The United States Navy has been using the small, populated island of Vieques, six miles off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, as a bombing range for almost sixty years, against the objections of the Viequenses, and with reckless disregard for the health, the environment, and the economy of Vieques. Moreover, they wish to continue using the bombing range, citing national security reasons. It is true that sacrifices are sometimes necessary in order to maintain the freedom and prosperity of the nation as a whole. To that end, Puerto Ricans have served valiantly in the U. S. armed services in all wars this century, and Viequenses have endured bombings and hardships for six decades. However, too many abuses have occurred, and it is time for the Navy to find another location for their exercises. The use of Vieques as a bombing range violates the human rights of the residents of Vieques; for that reason, the U. S. Navy must stop bombing and leave.

The history of the U. S. Navy in Vieques shows that from the beginning until now, the Navy has not been a good neighbor to the Viequenses. During the 1940's the U. S. Navy expropriated 26,000 acres (72%) of Vieques' territory for maneuvers, bombing practice and storage of military explosives (Naval Training Activities, Report 3). The U. S. Navy displaced 3,000 of Vieques' 9,000 inhabitants to the island of St. Croix in the U. S. Virgin Islands (Negrón Hernández 1). Many others who were living in the expropriated lands were moved onto plots in the middle of abandoned sugarcane fields (Langhorne 63-64). As a result, the sugar industry, which was the largest employer in Vieques before the expropriations, was forced to shut down (Rabin 2). In 1947, the U. S. Interior Department drew up plans to forcibly relocate Vieques' entire population to Saint Croix (3). This plan included digging up all of the dead from the cemeteries and relocating them elsewhere so that Viequenses would not have any reason to return to the island (Muñoz Marín 1). This plan was never implemented, and was abandoned by the early 1960's, due in part to the objections of Puerto Rican governor Luis Muñoz Marín (Rabin 9).

From the very beginning of the Navy's presence in Vieques, the relationship between the Navy and the Viequenses was never friendly, and the Viequenses held a deep distrust for the Navy. This was due not only to the forced removal of the Viequenses from their property and the destruction of their native industries, but also to a series of incidents in which Navy personnel got into brawls with and killed or seriously injured Viequenses in the civilian sector of Vieques. In 1953, after one senior citizen was killed and another injured, the municipal assembly of Vieques passed a resolution asking for the Navy to return the expropriated lands and leave Vieques because "this group of Navy men intentionally and maliciously provoke disorder, disagreeable incidents, tell lies, and act in ways undignified for decent and respectable people. Furthermore, once under the influence of alcohol, they provoke our ladies and young women, and disturb the peace of the households of Vieques" (Rabin 3).

More recently, there have been fewer confrontations between military personnel and Viequenses, but more bombing range "accidents." In October 1992, for example, the Navy dropped canisters of napalm on the bombing range in Vieques, in violation of agreements that the Navy had with the government of Puerto Rico (Rabin 5). Furthermore, the Navy recently admitted to firing 263 rounds of depleted uranium on Vieques in February of 1999, also in violation of agreements (Broder 1). Besides accidental misuse of forbidden weapons, there have also been close calls for the civilian population. Manuela Santiago, the current mayor of Vieques, reported that on October 24, 1993, "every house in the town shook" when a pilot missed the bombing range target and dropped five bombs very close to the town (González 2). On May 11, 1997, four NATO warships invaded the civil beach area of Sun Bay by mistake. A group of Vieques fishermen tried to chase the ships out of the bay. The personnel on the ships threw objects and fired water cannons at the fishermen, but after a couple of hours, they left the bay ("Vieques Fishermen" 1). Also in 1997, the U. S. Coast Guard, while using the Navy's practice gunnery range, strafed school buses and a police car in a nearby municipal parking lot with machine gun fire. Fortunately, no one was in the vehicles at the time (González 1).

However, the most recent incident, involving the death of a civilian security guard, was the straw that broke the camel's back. On April 19, 1999, a Marine Corps F-18 fighter jet accidentally dropped two 500-pound bombs on an observation post, killing the Viequense David Sanes Rodríguez, and injuring three other guards and a military agent (Report to the Secretary of Defense 1). This event outraged the Puerto Rican public, and led to calls for the complete ouster of the Navy from Vieques. Since that time, the Navy has been unable to continue its bombing exercises due to anti-Navy protests. However, these exercises could resume at any moment, as we shall see.

In their fifty-nine years in Vieques, the Navy has made several agreements with the Puerto Rican government that were intended to create and maintain a healthy relationship between the Viequenses and the Navy. The U. S. Navy has violated all of these agreements. For example, the 1983 Memorandum of Understanding made promises concerning community assistance, land use, weapons delivery, and environmental matters (Report to the Secretary of Defense 1). The Navy promised to improve the economy with the goal of full employment; at the present time, 73% of Viequenses live below the poverty level, and 27% are unemployed (Comité Pro Rescate 4). The Navy promised to work with the government of Puerto Rico to obtain the most beneficial uses of Navy land; they promised to plant forests, but nothing ever came of that (U. S. Senate Armed Services Committee 29). The Navy promised to minimize the use of live ammunition, but the amount of live ammunition increased dramatically after 1983 (Comité Pro Rescate 5). Finally, the Navy promised to study Vieques' ecosystems, establish conservation zones, protect endangered species, reduce the noise from bombing, and preserve archeological sites. The Navy did set up some "conservation zones," but they have continued dropping noisy and destructive bombs on the fragile ecosystems, endangered species, and important and unique archeological sites (5).

It is crystal clear that the Navy has been violating the human rights of the citizens of Vieques for more that half a century. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that human rights are the rights that each human being is universally recognized as having. These rights are based upon the dignity of each individual human being (1). Some of the humans rights recognized by international organizations such as the United Nations and the Organization of American States include the right to life, liberty, and security of person, the right to self-determination, the right to economic development, the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, and the right to a safe and clean environment (United Nations, International Covenant on Civil; United Nations, International Covenant on Economic; Inter-American Commission on Human Rights). The most important human rights that are being violated in Vieques are health, environmental, and economic rights.

All humans have the right to a high standard of health (United Nations, International Covenant on Economic, Part III Article 12). The cancer rate in Vieques is 40% higher than that on the big island of Puerto Rico (Millán Pabón). In addition, many Viequenses have unusual respiratory and skin ailments (Fernández Colón, "Mucho Lupus"). Epidemiological studies have not been completed yet, but all of the evidence points towards the Navy's practices being the cause of these illnesses (Ramírez de León 3). Vieques doesn't have factories, and it doesn't have very many cars or other sources of pollution. The only source of environmental contamination is the Navy's bombing practices. When bombs explode, they dump hazardous chemicals into the environment. One of the chief concerns of the Viequenses is that the bombing range is upwind from the civilian areas. Puerto Rico's governor Pedro Rosselló said in testimony before the U. S. Senate Armed Services Committee that "routinely polluting the atmosphere of the populated portion of Vieques are toxic smokes and other ordnance residues carried by the prevailing easterly breeze from a live-fire zone which is situated less than eight miles from the island's residential sector" (U. S. Senate Armed Services Committee 15). High levels of these bombing residues, including toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, nickel, tin, and vanadium, have been found in soil samples taken from the bombing range, and could be responsible for the increased rates of cancer and skin, and respiratory ailments observed in Viequenses compared to Puerto Ricans living on the main island (Rivera, "Metales Tóxicos" 1). According to Jorge Fernández Porto, an environmental advisor to Puerto Rico's Independence Party, "the soils and probably the aquifer of a good part of the bombing range, if not all, are a threat to life because of the contamination present. Among the metals found in considerable quantities are known carcinogens, and they affect the kidneys, the liver, the lungs, and the skin" (1, my translation).

Another area of concern for Viequenses is the pollution caused by the accidental firing of 263 bullets tipped with depleted uranium at targets in the bombing range in February of 1999 (Mulero). Upon impact, depleted uranium burns and vaporizes into a fine dust that is easily carried by wind and water to other areas ("Former Head of Pentagon's"). Depleted uranium exposure can cause certain cancers such as leukemia and Hodgkin's lymphoma, and a variety of neurological, respiratory, skin, and kidney ailments. Dr. Doug Rokke, former director of the Pentagon's Depleted Uranium Project and one of the authors of the Pentagon's program for environmental remediation of closed military ranges, stated, "it is imperative that complete environmental remediation of all affected terrain and medical care be provided for all affected residents of Vieques" ("Former Head of Pentagon's").

A second human right being violated by the Navy's presence in Vieques is the right to a clean environment (United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Part III Article 12). The Navy has been progressively destroying the environment in Vieques. According to Dr. Richard Levins, a professor of population sciences at Harvard University, Vieques used to have a diversity of habitats and had a thriving agricultural economy before the Navy came to Vieques, but now, the eastern portion of Vieques located within the bombing range is a desert pockmarked by craters. Since the Navy took the lands in the 1940's, Vieques has lost 4,118 acres of cropland, 5,891 acres of open pasture, 188 acres of coconut groves, and 329 acres of mangroves. Vieques has had a corresponding increase of 8,372 acres of thorny scrublands, 427 acres of barren land, and 1,000 acres of forest. Only the forest lands have improved; the other lands show evidence of environmental degradation (Naval Training Activities, Hearings 133). Some of these changes are a direct result of bombing; other changes are due to the death of the agricultural industry caused by the Navy's takeover of prime agricultural land and overgrazing due to the Navy's poor land management (134).

The destruction of Vieques' environment is occurring not only on land, but also in the sea. Vieques' fishermen have long noted that the coral reefs off the coast of Vieques have large holes in them, and that some reefs are dying. A team including a top coral reef expert, James Porter, recently studied the coral reefs off the coast of Vieques. Porter, a professor of ecology and marine sciences at the University of Georgia, said, "The Puerto Ricans said they were told the holes in the reefs came from hurricanes and that there were no bombs in the waters off the islands. We examined the area carefully and found that the holes were not from hurricanes, and there were a large number of live bombs in the waters as much as 400 yards offshore, hundreds of live artillery shells and bombs" (Williams 2). Recently, two sunken Navy ships containing up to one thousand metal barrels with unknown contents were found lodged in coral reefs off the eastern coast of Vieques. These ships had been deliberately sunk ten to twelve years ago during target practice. Porter investigated these ships and found that the barrels were leaking material into the water, and he took samples for analysis (2). The results of the analysis are not known yet, but it is very possible that the barrels contain toxic materials since the corals close to the leaking barrels are devoid of life.

Several species of endangered animals live on or close to Vieques, including jociduda whales, manatees, sea turtles, and brown pelicans. The secretary of the Puerto Rican Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA), Daniel Pagán Rosa, has stated that the Navy has impeded DRNA technicians from entering the restricted areas to study the impact of the bombing on these animals. However, his divers examined some of the reefs off the coast of the bombing areas during their studies of sea turtles, and they found significant damage caused by the bombing (Fernández Colón, "Marina No Puede").

Evidence has been found which suggests that the heavy metals and other chemicals resulting from the Navy's bombing practices have contaminated fish, crabs, and other animals on Vieques and are entering Vieques' food chain. A study conducted in November and December of 1999 by a group of professors of the Department of Biology of the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez found elevated levels of carcinogenic metals, such as cadmium and cobalt, in the bodies of the crabs that live in lagoons in the bombing range (Pineda). These levels were 1,000 times the maximum tolerated level established by the World Health Organization. According to Arturo Massol of the University of Puerto Rico, "this study shows evidence of biomagnification and transport [of heavy metals] through the food chain, in addition to alerting us to potential routes of contamination of civilians by toxic and carcinogenic agents from the Navy's bombing range" (Pineda, my translation). Although the violin crabs examined in the study are not an edible species, other animals feed on these crabs, and the heavy metals can be passed on in this way to humans.

A third human right being violated by the Navy in Vieques is the right to economic development (United Nations, International Covenant on Economic, Part I Article 1). The economy of Vieques is worse than the economy of the United States during the Great Depression (Ramírez de León 4). Before 1941, the Viequenses had a diversity of jobs related to agriculture (mainly sugarcane), cattle, and fishing. The expropriation of land by the Navy caused an immediate 40% decrease in island income, and forced thousands of people to flee Vieques. Agriculture was almost completely eradicated (Rabin 3). The Navy also retained the rights to the ocean to a distance of three miles from the shore of the eastern half of the island of Vieques (Naval Training Activities, Report 5). The fishermen can use some of these areas when there are no military practices taking place, but that is less than half of the year during periods of naval activity. The area that fishermen can use on an unrestricted basis is very small (5). If that wasn't bad enough, sometimes by "accident" the Navy uses the civilian fishing areas as well, tearing up the fishermen's traps with their ships (Naval Training Activities, Hearings 131). Occasionally, fishermen's boats are strafed by gunfire (Comité Pro Rescate 5). Finally, the Navy's practices have wrecked the tourist industry in Vieques. Vieques has many beautiful beaches and panoramic views very attractive to tourists, but the constant danger of the Navy's bombs, the contamination, and the noise produced by the bombs, airplanes, and helicopters make Vieques unattractive to both Puerto Rican and international tourists (Comité Pro Rescate 4).

The U. S. Navy states that live fire bombing using the Vieques bombing range is essential for national defense, but is that true? According to the Pentagon's Special Panel on Military Operations on Vieques, "Vieques is a unique facility; the only one located in the Atlantic where realistic combat training can be conducted in a combined a coordinated manner . . . offering the only Navy live fire land complex with day and night capability, amphibious landing beaches and maneuver areas" (Report to the Secretary of Defense 3). Despite the Navy's assertions that Vieques is essential for its operations, retired Vice Admiral John J. Shanahan recently stated, "while training at Vieques was invaluable for Navy readiness in earlier years, that is no longer the case. The current training on Vieques is neither unique, nor in most instances necessary for modern amphibious warfare." Admiral Shanahan went on to assert that the training at Vieques is not integrated, and that training can be conducted by individual units and through simulation at other locations. Shanahan concludes, "Therefore Vieques is not critical to our national security needs" (U. S. Senate Armed Services Committee 14, 15).

Another argument against the necessity of naval training in Vieques can be found by examining the training done by the Navy's Pacific Fleet. According to Lieutenant Commander Rafael Matos, an active-duty Navy officer, the Navy's Pacific Fleet is able to meet all of its military requirements without training similar to that obtained by the Atlantic Fleet in Vieques. Matos argues that if the Pacific Fleet does not require this type of training, there is no reason for the Atlantic Fleet to practice in Vieques. Matos states, ". . . it is time for the Navy to examine in detail what it is the Pacific Fleet, lacking a Vieques, does to maintain its readiness and implement the same practices in the Atlantic Fleet without a Vieques" (Matos 76).

Because of the demonstrators camped out on the Vieques bombing range, the Navy has not been able to hold any training practices on Vieques for over a year. During this time, the Navy has always been able to arrange for alternative training at other locations without a loss in its combat readiness. This further shows that naval training in Vieques is not essential for national defense.

Recent developments demonstrate the absolute control of the U. S. government over Puerto Rico and the resistance of Puerto Ricans against the Navy's violations of the human rights of the Viequenses. On January 31, 2000, the governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Rosselló, accepted President Clinton's directive on Vieques. This directive, an executive order, calls for three more years of bombing with inert munitions, $40 million in economic aid, the clean-up and return of some of the lands, and a referendum for the people of Vieques to decide whether they want continued bombing with live ammunition into perpetuity for an extra $50 million (Suro 1). The option of no more bombing is not on the referendum. After the death of David Sanes, the government of Puerto Rico demanded that the Navy not drop one more bomb on Vieques and that the Navy clean and return the land to the Viequenses (Vieques Libre 1-2). Rosselló's acceptance of resumed bombing and a stacked referendum (with no local control, and without an option for no bombing) came as a shock to the Viequenses, to the religious leaders, and to the opposition political parties in Puerto Rico (García 1-2). Many Puerto Ricans think that Rosselló accepted the last proposal because Clinton promised him a fast track to statehood for Puerto Rico. Regardless of the reasons, the abrupt change of policy and the acceptance of this directive were viewed as a betrayal.

Since shortly after the death of David Sanes Rodríguez in April of 1999, several groups of community leaders have established civil disobedience campsites on the Navy-owned lands in order to discourage resumed bombing of Vieques. These groups include the Catholic Church, protestant and evangelical groups, teachers, fishermen, labor unions, university students, and pro-independence and pro-commonwealth groups (Kearns 1; Torres Gotay 1). The only group noticeably absent from these campsites is the governor's pro-statehood party. After the governor accepted the Pentagon's last offer, the groups in civil disobedience staged the largest march in Puerto Rican history in San Juan on February 21, 2000 in support of peace for Vieques (Roldán Soto 1). Approximately 100,000 people blocked six lanes of traffic on the Las Américas Expressway for more than two hours. The event was followed by an ecumenical religious service at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Currently, there is a standoff between the groups in civil disobedience camped on the Navy firing range and the Navy, which wishes to resume bombing. A coalition of Puerto Rican religious leaders has asked for a meeting with President Clinton in an attempt to mediate the situation, but so far these attempts have failed (Rivera, "Líderes Religiosos" 1).

History shows that for almost sixty years, the U. S. Navy has been a bad neighbor to the Viequenses. Furthermore, the Navy's violations of its own agreements with the government of Puerto Rico with respect to Vieques show that it cannot be trusted. In addition, the Navy has clearly violated the health, environmental, and economic human rights of the Viequenses. Finally, the Navy has no compelling national defense interest in Vieques. For these reasons, it is time for the Navy to leave Vieques.

Works Cited

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---. "Metales Tóxicos en Suelos Viequenses." El Nuevo Día [San Juan] 10 Aug. 1999. (7 Feb. 2000).

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---. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. 16 Dec. 1966. (17 Feb. 2000).

---. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 10 Dec. 1948. (17 Feb. 2000).

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