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For decades the U.S. Navy has conducted military training exercises—live-fire “war games”—on the island of Vieques, located off the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico. During World War II, the federal government expropriated two-thirds of the island, ordering local fishermen and farmers to leave or face eviction. Those who chose to remain on Vieques, which has a current population of about 10,000, live in a narrow strip in the middle of the island. According to a study released earlier this year by the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, vegetation on the island is contaminated as a result of the bombing and is unfit for human consumption. Other studies have indicated that island residents have a higher incidence of cancer and other diseases than residents of the main island of Puerto Rico. After initial denials, the Navy admitted to firing shells tipped with depleted uranium on the Vieques range, in violation of federal law.
In April 1999 a David Sanes Rodríguez, a civilian security guard, was killed during a bombing exercise. His death galvanized civic, social and church groups on the island and throughout Puerto Rico to demand the Navy’s departure. The military has long insisted that Vieques is the only site in the United States where it can conduct joint exercises—land, sea and air—and fire live ammunition.
For over a year protestors camped out at Navy installations and the bombing was halted. Early last year the Clinton administration negotiated an agreement between the government of Puerto Rico and the Navy that calls for limited training exercises, pending the outcome of a referendum in which voters will be asked whether they want the Navy to leave permanently by May 3, 2003, or remain indefinitely in exchange for 50 million dollars in economic aid. The Navy scheduled the referendum for November of this year.
The agreement was widely unpopular on the island and sparked renewed protests. On May 4, the Clinton administration ordered the removal of protestors from Navy bases. Among those arrested by federal agents was Puerto Rico Methodist Bishop Juan Vera. Military exercises were resumed. Then in October, a group of Viequenses spent 24 hours in the bombing zone during NATO exercises.
The election of Sila Calderón as governor of Puerto Rico last November was an indication of popular sentiment, since Calderón campaigned on a platform demanding the immediate and permanent withdrawal of the Navy from Vieques. Recently the Bush administration ordered a one-month suspension of all military operations on the island. But activists insist the battle is far from over.
Among them are the members of The Organization of Concerned Texas Artists and Activists for Vieques (OCTAAV). Last fall OCTAAV organized a delegation to Vieques, which included Austin-based singer/composer Lourdes Pérez and Austin poet raulsalinas. Longtime Observer photographer Alan Pogue accompanied the group.