Kennedy, Muñoz Marín and Vieques

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Letter sent by Puerto Rico's Governor ,Luis Muñoz Marín, to the U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Dated December 28, 1961

Dear Mr. President:

Following our conversation on December 16th at La Fortaleza, you suggested that I send you a memorandum recapitulating the points that I made concerning the Vieques project (which includes the smaller island of Culebra - 800 inhabitants).

In summary, I asked for your personnal consideration of the thinking of the Department of Defense concerning this matter. The political, social, and human effects of the Department's plans, as I described to you, will be so profoundly destructive that the project should be abandoned unless it is not merely desirable, but clearly, critically, and urgently necessary for the military defense of the Nation.

The adverse effects of the project will, I fear, be felt not only locally, but also in the States -- particularly where there are large numbers of Puerto Ricans -- and internationally. I shall briefly summarize the dangers that I see.

1. There are about 8000 people in Vieques. They and their ancestors have lived there for many generations. Their roots have grown around family, neighbors, schools, churches, houses, land and jobs. The project involves forcible uprooting of these people -- even removal of the bodies from the cemeteries because, we are told, the people of Vieques will not be allowed to return to visit the graves.

2. The project involves the destruction of a community which is a political and juridical entity to which people have strong emotional attachment. The people of Vieques regard themselves as Puerto Ricans, but they also regard themselves as specially identifiable on the basis of residence in Vieques.

3. Obviously, the political and human dismemberment which the project involves will be a fundamental shock. We know of no truly comparable action in American history. I believe the it is the kind of action which arouses instinctive disapproval.

4. The project is peculiarly subject to widespread denunciation and to hostile propaganda use. Puerto Rico has only recently emerged from colonial status. The United States is still charged by some people with colonial rule over Puerto Rico, a charge which is unjustified but can be made effective if given a dramatic symbol; and the people of Vieques and of Puerto Rico are culturally different from those of the United States.

5. For all of these reasons, we must anticipate that the project would have a profound impact. In Puerto Rico, it will doubtlessly be received with shock and dismay. In the States, there may well be critical reaction, particularly on the part of liberals. In mainland centers of Puerto Rican population, we can expect sharp and emotional criticism. As I think you know, migrant Puerto Ricans carry with them not only affection for Puerto Rico, but attachment to their local communities. There is, for example, a Vieques Club in New York, as well as clubs of persons who have migrated from other municipalities of Puerto Rico.

6. In Latin America, there is, of course, the danger that the project will be used to vindicate the unjust accusations which our enemies make as to the attitude of the United States towards Puerto Rico and its people. This will not be offset by the maximum cooperation which the Commonwealth Government could give to you. Our enemies and critics would merely use such cooperation as "evidence" of the "vassalage" of Puerto Rico to the United States.

7. In the United Nations, the project would surely be used by the Castro-Cubans and the Communist bloc to vindicate their current charges that Puerto Rico is a colonial area and that the United Nations should include it as such.

Apart from these serious consequences, Mr. President, another and fundamental factor must be seriously pondered. As I discussed with you, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico requires an Act of the Legislature and a referendum of the voters in the affected area as a condition of abolishing a municipality. Unless this constitutional procedure is followed prior to the appropriation of the property and lands in Vieques by means of eminent domain, the evacuation of Vieques might be subject to a charge of illegality. As a minimum, unless an affirmative vote of the people of Vieques were obtained, it would be charged that the constitutional provision has been circumvented by a "gimmick".

Let me emphasize, Mr. President, that the success of such a referendum cannot be assured, even though, if it were held, I would do all in my power to obtain an affirmative vote. This is, of course, another hazard that must be considered in evaluating the project. Not to hold the referendum would be bad; to hold it and lose it would be worse.

You asked me if there were not offsetting advantages to the Defense Department's proposal. If the considerations involved were solely economic, I should have no reservations about the project. Economic conditions in Vieques are not good, due in part to the military expansion that has already taken place, and I assume that the terms upon which the project would be carried out would be calculated to improve the economic opportunities of the evacuated people. I also believe that there is every disposition on the part of the Federal Officials to make generous provision for the replacement of the schools, churches, and community facilities that would be lost, and to provide an offset to the Commonwealth Government for the loss of Vieques.

But economic considerations are not controlling in this situation. Many -- perhaps most -- of the people of Vieques will not willingly exchange the values of home and of family and community roots for economic benefits, however generous. And of course, the people of Puerto Rico would not and could not be induced to participate in uprooting 8000 persons for financial considerations.

In these circumstances, Mr. President, I suggest that it is appropriate and essential for the Defense Department to establish beyond doubt that their proposal for the total expropriation of Vieques and its total evacuation is not merely convenient or desirable or useful, but inescapably necessary. I have not been able to understand, for example, why their apparently basic purpose -- to provide a secure area for training -- could not be met by careful provision for scaling off a part of Vieques, perhaps within the area they now control, rather than by total expropriation.

In my conference with Secretary McNamara last October, I stated my willingnes to have Commonwealth officials discuss with Defense officials all details of the project; but I conveyed to him my firm conviction that it should not be carried out except for ineluctable need.

We are not in a position to evaluate the national necessity of the project or the feasibility of alternatives. We must and do rely upon you for this appraisal, and we are confident that you will arrive at your conclusion with full appreciation of our motives in presenting the non-military facts to you and asking for your personal decision. We are, of course, prepared to do everything within our power to contribute to the security of the Nation; but we submit that the project which has been proposed is so drastic, destructive and dangerous that it should not be undertaken unless you are convinced that to forego its effectuation is clearly to imperil the Nation's ability to defend itself, and that there is no alternative to the proposed program.

Sincerily,

Luis Muñoz Marín, Governor
Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

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