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Vieques: When Government Has No Accountability

The People Suffer The Consequences

Will the political conditions that made Vieques possible be our legacy to the next generation of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico?

By Herbert W. Brown III

President, Citizens Educational Foundation

The U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico do not need to prove anything to anyone when it comes to defending freedom. The story of the United States military in this century has also been Puerto Rico's story, because U.S. citizens born in Puerto Rico have been there every step of the way. In addition to the valor of men and women of Puerto Rican ancestry serving in the armed forces, military bases in Puerto Rico have been strategically vital to the ability of the U.S. to project power not only in the Puerto Rican region but globally.

The culture of the U.S. military–Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard–has become a part of Puerto Rico's way of life and culture, and vice versa. U.S. military commanders know Puerto Rican born soldiers and sailors "can do", and the military knows it can count on fighting men and women from Puerto Rico to acquit themselves with honor.

So it is without apologies that the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico can criticize the Navy or any other branch of the armed services when military operations in the Puerto Rican islands community have an unacceptable impact on the quality of life and rights of the citizenry in Puerto Rico. That is what patriotic citizens all over the United States do when the military's relationship with the civilian population is not being managed properly.

The problem for Puerto Rico is that its civilian population and the local government do not have the political clout to shake up the Pentagon when it is necessary to reconcile military priorities with the community's rights. Under these conditions, it takes a man-made environmental disaster, a human tragedy like the death of David Sanes Rodríguez, or both, to produce the political will and get the attention in Washington to end military operations that would never have been allowed to reach this level of conflict in the states.

Vieques has become a political priority in Washington only because of the Navy's recent accident. Because the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is still a territory, we lack the political power to make the Navy accountable, so it takes tragedy to enable Puerto Rico to challenge the status quo. Thus, in reality the excesses and neglect that have been suffered by the people of Vieques were made possible due to the disenfranchisement and political disablement of citizens under the territorial commonwealth system. So even if there is a sustainable consensus in Puerto Rico that the Navy must go, and the local referendum produces that result, it will be because the federal government permitted itself to be voted out, not through the exercise of true sovereign self-government by the citizens as in the states of the union or independent nations.

In objective terms, Vieques has been a crisis for decades, but the issue barely showed up on the radar screen in Washington despite regular press attention and even Congressional reports sympathetic to the grievances of the islanders. As discussed below, sympathy for the plight of disenfranchised territorial citizen population is different than accountability to citizens with equal political and legal rights.

In political terms, civilian opposition has been a manageable nuisance to the military because U.S. citizens in the commonwealth territory do not have recourse as in the states. This allowed the U.S. to take the land at Vieques as if it were in a state under domestic law, but treat the U.S. citizens the same as it would a foreign population that had no rights or power in the political process.

This illustrates the reality that territorial commonwealth leaves citizens in Puerto Rico subject to the supremacy of the federal government, without the same ability to influence federal actions or seek redress of grievances that citizens have in the states. In turn, this undermines the moral and legal integrity of the exercise of federal power over the citizenry, whether the federal action be the taking of land by eminent domain or the use of that land for military operations. Even where land in a territory is taken by the local government, it ultimately is authorized under federal law establishing the local government, and that federal organic law defining the form of local government allowed is made without consent or participation by the U.S. citizens of the territory.

Equal rights is the basis upon which U.S. citizens can and must accept the equal burdens living under federal supremacy, and territorial commonwealth both deprives the citizens of rights and the federal government of legitimacy in its exercise of federal powers. If citizens are to be asked to make sacrifices on an equal basis when the federal government must exercise eminent domain in the interest of national security, then they must have equal participation in the political process through which those sacrifices are exacted by the government.

The lack of either equal political and civil rights as a state or separate sovereignty and recourse to international law makes it possible for the military to practice "mission creep" and stretch resources to get more for less. Rather than investing in good community relations that keep Congress off the back of military commanders in the states, or cause military commanders to make good relations with the host government a part of the strategic mission priorities in a foreign nation, in Puerto Rico the military can cut corners and get reckless. If it comes at all, accountability is usually too little and too late.

In Puerto Rico the military has largely had its way with the people since 1898. If the local civilian population had political power in national elections and in Congress, or in the political system of a foreign country, the kind of problem at Vieques would have been addressed years ago. For the patriotic U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico who support the U.S. military mission in Puerto Rico and throughout the world, this lack of accountability is worrisome because it is eroding U.S. moral authority in a way that can only lead to low morale and impaired readiness.

This problem becomes more aggravated each year that passes in which Puerto Rico is subject to federal laws and policy, but the U.S. citizens here do not have the same rights as citizens in the states. For the very reason that U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico support its military as much or more than any other American community, it is doubly wrong for the military to operate here with any less rigorous standards simply because the citizens do not have equal rights in the U.S. system of political accountability.

For those in Puerto Rico who believe the solution is not statehood but to establish a separate republic, the current lack of accountability is used to call into question the value of U.S. sovereignty, nationality and citizenship in Puerto Rico. Thus, the legacy of Vieques compels independence leaders to adopt a more radical stance than might otherwise be the case, demanding the demilitarization of Puerto Rico along the lines of what happened in the former U.S. commonwealth territory of the Philippines. In the event Congress decides to call the bluff of separatists and independistas and offer to terminate commonwealth in favor of separate republic status, the chronic lack of accountability under commonwealth could make it much more difficult to negotiate continued close mutual security and military base rights treaties, such as those which went into effect when the Marshall Islands was fully decolonized and became a republic associated with the United States.

Hundreds of people were killed in accidents during training for D-Day. There are civilians, contractors, and military personnel killed and injured in military training accidents every year. That is tragic, but it also is part of the price Americans pay to ensure that the political order of the world will never undermine the political order which protects the liberty of all U.S. citizens under the U.S. Constitution. U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico have never hesitated to play their role in this noble cause, or to pay the price for freedom. But everyone in Puerto Rico knows there is a great inequity when citizens from Puerto Rico are treated equally on the battlefield but not in the political process.

It is wrong for U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico to have little more in the way of political recourse and remedies in the political process than the survivors of those foreign citizens killed in the cable lift accident in Italy. U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico may have direct access to the U.S. federal courts to seek legal remedies; but, in contrast to politically determined remedies, federal court plaintiffs with even the most clear cases must overcome legal defenses in an often long adversary process to obtain compensation based on actual loss or damages. Those who are suing over Vieques will soon learn this lesson.

When it comes to political remedies and changes in policy that created the conditions resulting in injuries or loss, like foreigners the residents of Puerto Rico are without a vote for President or a vote in Congress. In that sense they truly are in a situation more similar to that of the Italian cable lift accident survivors than to their fellow citizens in the states. This is just another example of how U.S. citizenship is eroded and undermined by the territorial commonwealth status quo.

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