Church stands with people in troubled Vieques
By CLAIRE SCHAEFFER-DUFFY
President Clintons Jan. 31 directives concerning the use of part of Vieques, Puerto Rico, as a target range for the U.S. Navy troubled members of the House Armed Services Committee. In the months preceding the directives, Vieques was in a state of uproar. The little island east of Puerto Ricos mainland had reached its saturation point for live ordinances, napalm and depleted uranium -- the stuff of modern military maneuvers -- and Puerto Ricans of all political persuasions wanted the Navy out. Clerics, politicians and housewives had joined others in a campaign of popular civil disobedience, camping in the Navys restricted zone to prohibit the resumption of live-fire bombing practices.
The presidents response to the standoff between the Navy and the islanders was to offer a referendum. Residents could choose, he decreed, between a 3-year phaseout or a continuation of the live fire training on terms proposed by the Navy. For Charlie Connelly, former Navy airman and long-time resident of Vieques, the options seemed ludicrous, like a judge telling a wife beater he can only do it for three more years unless she survives and publicly begs for more.
But members of the House Armed Services were incensed over the presidents willingness to let the Puerto Ricans determine the future of their homeland. The referendum, according to Bill Johnson, national defense specialist and legislative aide to the Armed Services Committee, would set a terrible and very dangerous legal precedent. Referring to the Dugway Proving Grounds in the state of Utah that carries out chemical and biological testing, which is worse than anything in Vieques, Johnson asked, What would happen if the Downwinders [a group of protesters] illegally occupy the base and say, Were not leaving until we get a vote? You cant have a proxy vote on matters of national security.
Does this mean that anyone living downwind from a toxic military project must simply bite the contaminated bullet?
Earlier this summer, the Caguas, Puerto Rico, diocese, led by Bishop Alvaro Corrada del Río, conducted a house-to-house survey of approximately one quarter of the islands population regarding the Navys presence on the island. Of those polled, 88.5 percent favored the immediate departure of the Navy, 7.5 percent favored the Navy remaining and 4 percent favored the 3-year phaseout.
At the heart of Vieques residents complaints are claims of environmental destruction and lethal contamination of water, air and ground soil. There is much evidence to support these claims. A study conducted by the Navy in the late 1970s found the carcinogens tetryl and RDX in the drinking water supply for the towns of Isabel Segunda and Esperanza. The study, however, did not say how those chemicals came to be in the water supply.
Puerto Ricos Department of Health studied the island in the mid-1980s and found residents have a 26 percent higher cancer rate than the inhabitants of Puerto Ricos mainland.
According to The San Juan Star, Nuclear engineer Frankie Jimenezs investigation of the Navys bombing range on Vieques from October 1999 to February 2000 found at least nine different areas of significantly high levels of radiation. Jimenezs findings challenge the Navys claim that a depleted uranium accident occurred only once on the island in a single area.
Francisco Rodriquez, Korean War veteran and a native of Vieques, believes that, for the Navy, the people of his island are like laboratory rats. And indeed it seems the island has been a place of cavalier military experimentation. But Vieques is becoming an experiment in hope.
On July 5, Corrada del Río traveled to Vieques and explained the results of the diocesan survey to the islanders. The diocese of Caguas will continue its poll and is launching training for a summer campaign of civil disobedience. One action includes bringing a statue of the Virgin of Mount Carmel, patroness of fishermen, into the Navys restricted zone.
Fr. Nelson Lopez, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Vieques, says the churchs alliance with the people of Vieques is a matter of dignity, morality, a matter of life. The church has to defend the life and preach the Good News. May the hope in Vieques spread to Utah and beyond.
Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a member of the SS. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker community and writes for their publication, The Catholic Radical. She recently returned from a nine-day visit to Vieques. Her e-mail is ThereseCW@aol.com
National Catholic Reporter, August 11, 2000