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Bombed Away Puerto Rico Powerless To Stop Navy Exercises

by Pedro Rossello

October 19, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE WASHINGTON TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

Imagine that your home state contains an insular community where the Navy has been conducting training exercises ever since World War II. Huddled in the mid-portion of this roughly 50-square-mile island, sandwiched between the two-thirds of its acreage that the Navy controls, are the homes of 9,300 of your fellow citizens.

For more than half a century, these folks have subsisted within earshot of year-round aerial and ship-to-shore bombardment often with live ammunition; their fishing industry has been perennially disrupted; their exquisite coral reefs have been ravaged by shells and amphibious landings; their efforts to develop their island's exceptional tourism potential have been aborted by a war-zone environment; rare bioluminescent bays, endangered wildlife species and pre-Columbian archeological sites are constantly imperiled by military maneuvers; local cancer rates significantly exceed the statewide average; unemployment is disproportionately high.

The Navy signs a formal memorandum of understanding with the state government, wherein it promises to spur economic development and protect the well-being of the island and its people. But 16 years later, in 1999:

  • The memorandum is a dead letter, honored more in the breech than in the observance.
  • It comes to light that 263 shells loaded with radioactive depleted uranium have been fired onto the island from a military jet.
  • A lengthy history of such periodic mistakes climaxes in an aerial bombing accident that claims the life of one local resident and injures four others.

Now imagine that the people of your state rise up as one to demand that the Navy take its assaults elsewhere and leave the island in peace. Your governor with the emphatic support of every major civic, religious and political faction in the state - formally petitions the president to order that the Navy pull out. Your senators and representatives in Congress take up their constituents' cause and unanimously endorse the movement.

Now comes the hard part. Imagine what happens next.

You wake up one morning to discover that you no longer have any federal power. The residents of your state have been stripped of the right to vote for president; your congressional delegation has been reduced to a single non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives; and the Navy's influential friends on Capitol Hill are pressuring The White House to deny the virtually unanimous petition that was submitted on your behalf and that of your neighbors statewide.

In essence, this is a true story. The state in question is Puerto Rico where a population that now totals 3.9-million U.S. citizens has been obliged to endure federal powerlessness as a territory for an incredible 101 years. So we didn't suddenly lose our voting rights or congressional clout. We have never had any.

The island to which I have been referring is Vieques. Outside of Puerto Rico, its name is unfamiliar and its plight largely unknown. Ditto the sacrifices and heroism of the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have served in the U.S. armed forces throughout this century, including dozens of generals or admirals and four recipients of the Medal of Honor.

The liberation of Vieques from decades of military siege should be an open-and-shut case. And it would be if Puerto Rico possessed civic equality as a state of the Union.

In the harsh light of our people's disfranchisement, however, the issue remains very much in doubt:

  • A presidentially mandated Special Panel on Military Operations on Vieques has yet to file a report, some six weeks after its original deadline date.
  • Prominent members of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee have vowed to oppose any Navy withdrawal when the Committee conducts an Oct. 19 hearing on the subject.
  • Senior naval officers and Navy Department personnel have had the brazen audacity to question the patriotism of the American citizens of Puerto Rico.

The stage is thus set for a tragically sorry spectacle. Might is about to be pitted against right. And might may well prevail unless our fellow citizens all across America unite behind the people of Puerto Rico in a dramatic display of the humane decency and sense of justice which have traditionally typified the American spirit at critical moments like this one.

Pedro Rossello, governor of Puerto Rico, is a leading advocate of U.S. statehood for his Caribbean territory.

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