How Island Residents Shut Down a Navy Bombing Range

May 23rd, 2023 - by Denise Oliver Velez / Community Contributors Team & Daily Kos

Protestors block the gate to Camp Garcia Naval Base on Jan. 13, 2003

The Navy Was Run Out of Vieques in May 2003,
But a Dark Legacy Lingers

Denise Oliver Velez /Community Contributors Team & Daily Kos

(May 4, 2023) — This month, Puerto Ricans celebrated the 20th anniversary of the long struggle to drive the US Navy out of the island municipality of Vieques. On May 1, 2003, decades of struggle and protest culminated in forcing US President George W. Bush to order the Navy to withdraw.

But that victory was not the end of the story. It was just the beginning of still more battles. The island’s residents — los Viequenses — continue to face multiple challenges to their health and well-being.

It remains difficult to get people on the US mainland who are not Puerto Rican to pay attention to issues in Puerto Rico. Given the recent attacks on teaching un-sanitized history, I wonder if Vieques and its struggles will ever make it into high school curricula.

The US Navy’s Toxic Playground

Interestingly enough, this week The Guardian published one of the best journalistic efforts to delve into both Vieques’ past and problematic present. I hope everyone will take the time to read it.

‘I Thought They’d Kill Us’: How the US Navy
Devastated a Tiny Puerto Rican Island

Wilfred Chan / The Guardian

For 60+ years, the US Navy fired explosives on Vieques, a tiny Puerto Rican island, until finally agreeing to stop on May 1, 2003. 20 years later, the islanders still suffer the devastating physical and economic consequences:

For the story, reporter Wilfred Chan interviewed Island residents, like 78-year-old Carmen Valencia:
When Carmen Valencia was five years old, troops came banging on her door. Her mother grabbed a long machete. “I had no idea what was going on, but I thought, if they come in here, they’re going to kill us.”

Chan covers the dark history, as well as the untenable current situation on the island:
In 1941, US troops evicted Vieques’ roughly 10,000 residents at gunpoint and relocated them to a narrow strip of land in Vieques’ center. The rest of the island was turned into a de facto war zone — deploying, by one navy admiral’s estimate, as much as 3m pounds a year of live ordinances containing napalm, depleted uranium, lead, and other toxic chemicals, for more than 60 years. “They did anything here that they wanted,” Valencia says.

Islanders protested in vain until 1999, when the navy accidentally dropped a 500lb bomb on a lookout post, killing David Sanes, a 35-year-old Viequense who worked there as a security guard. Viequenses responded with civil disobedience to impede the navy base’s operations, drawing global headlines and visits from Ricky Martin, Al Sharpton, and the Dalai Lama.

Valencia joined a new group called the Vieques Women’s Alliance, which mobilized hundreds of women to the front lines. In 2001, she and 30 other women broke into the base and were briefly jailed. “We wanted to be arrested,” she says. “We had to speak our right to be there.” […]

Though the islanders defeated the US navy without a single bullet, another struggle was just beginning. Two decades later, Vieques is wounded by abnormally high rates of disease, a discriminatory economic system, and a lack of basic services that’s made living here even harder than before. This is a story about the long-term consequences of colonialism, and a community that’s determined against all odds to get free.

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