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Vieques 10 Years After the Bombing Stopped

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By Helen Jaccard and David Swanson,

Ten years ago May 1, the people of Vieques, Puerto Rico and their supporters from around the world defeated the most powerful military machine ever, through mass civil disobedience and without firing a single shot.   On May 1, 2003 the bombing stopped and the bases were officially closed.  People from all over the world supported the struggle on Vieques, and the activists and residents have an incredible victory to celebrate.

There were decades of resistance, civil disobedience and arrests.  But those hoping and laying the groundwork for greater resistance were given an opportunity on May 19, 1999, when a U.S. Marines pilot missed his target and killed civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez.  That spark lit a fire of nonviolent resistance that brought together Viequenses, Puerto Ricans, and supporters from the United States and around the world.  A campaign of non-violent civil resistance that began in 1999 lasted four years, including a year-long occupation of the bombing range, and saw over 1,500 people arrested.  The Navy was forced to close the bombing range on May 1, 2003.  Peace loving people had won most of the first of their demands for the island: demilitarization.

A huge commemoration is planned in Vieques for the anniversary from May 1 -- 4, 2013.

Beautiful Vieques island is only 21 miles across and 5 miles wide, and 7 miles from the main island of Puerto Rico.  It is home to about 9,300 people, as well as endangered turtle species, rare Caribbean plants and animals, bio-luminescent bays, and miles of what look like unspoiled beaches.

But crabs with three claws, grossly deformed fish laden with heavy metals, once-beautiful coral reefs, and beaches and seas that have been decimated by military activity tell a story of environmental disaster with huge health impacts on people, plants, and animals.

An incredible three-quarters of the island was appropriated in the 1940s and used by the U.S. Navy for bombing practice, war games, and dumping or burning old munitions.  This was a terrible attack on an island municipality, one the United States was not at war with. 

Now, Vieques Island, a paradise in trouble, is one of the largest superfund sites in the United States, together with its little sister island of Culebra, which took the brunt of the bombing until 1973, when the Culebra bombing range closed (also due to protests) and the bombing practice was transferred to Vieques.

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In 2003, the Navy did not return the land to the people, but transferred its Vieques land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates beaches that were never used for military activities. 

Viequenses fear that keeping the U.S. Government in control of their lands could result in future re-militarization of the island.  Residents aren't happy that their land has not been returned to them and that they are fined for staying on their land past sunset or collecting crabs -- a mainstay of their historic diet.  There are also two military occupations of lands -- a ROTHR radar system and a communications area, and the people want these closed as well.  You can add your name to Viequenses' demand for peace here

For over 2,000 years people known as Taino inhabited Vieques, which they called Bieque.  The Taino found and left behind them a paradise of fertile soil, fresh water, and trees.  In 1493, the conquistadors arrived.  In 1524, the Spanish killed every remaining resident.  Vieques was then left uninhabited by humanity for 300 years, interrupted by a few British, French, and Spanish attempts to set up forts or destroy each other's efforts.

From 1823 into the 1900s, Vieques was used by the Spanish and French to grow sugar.  English-speaking people of African origin, from nearby islands, were kept in slavery or the nearest thing to it, and forced to grow the sugar cane.  They revolted in 1864 and 1874, and in the 1915 Sugar Strike.  The United States took Puerto Rico from the Spanish in 1898 and made residents U.S. citizens in 1917.  The depression of the 1930s, together with two hurricanes in 1932, brought on harder times than ever.

In 1939 the United States bought 26,000 of the 30,000 acres of land on Vieques from big sugar plantation owners.  Living on that land were 10,000 to 12,000 workers who also raised crops to feed themselves.  The U.S. Navy gave families $30 and one day's notice before bulldozing houses.  Most people were left without means of subsistence, but many stubbornly refused to leave the island.

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Carlos Prieta Ventura, a 51-year-old Viequense fisherman, says his father was 8-years-old in 1941 when the Navy told his family their house would be bulldozed whether or not they accepted the $30.  Ventura says he has always resisted the Navy's efforts to force people off the island.

From 1941 to 2003, the U.S. military flew planes from aircraft carriers based on the main island of Puerto Rico dropping bombs over Vieques.  Bombs "rained down," and you could feel the ground shake within the base, as one U.S. veteran told CNN.  Bombs fell at all hours, all day, all week, all year, amounting to approximately a trillion tons of ordnance, much of which (some 100,000 items) lies unexploded on land and in the sea.  Vieques was systematically poisoned by heavy metals, napalm, Agent Orange, depleted uranium, and who knows what all else that the Navy has not announced publicly -- having falsely denied using depleted uranium before finally admitting to it, and having dumped barrels of unknown toxic substances into the clear blue Caribbean.

The arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, and aluminum in the bombs are also found in hair samples of 80% of the people living on Vieques, who suffer at far higher rates than on the main island (and possibly anywhere else on earth) from cancer (30% higher than Puerto Rico), cirrhosis of the liver, kidney failure, hypertension (381%), diabetes (41%), birth defects, stillbirths, and miscarriages.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)

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