AFTER A FOUR-YEAR campaign of civil disobedience on Vieques, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Navy in May ceased its use of the bombing range on the island. The move ends 60 years of practice with live explosives, including napalm, depleted-uranium projectiles, and experimental weapons systems.
Islanders have the highest cancer rate in Puerto Rico and an economy depressed by the years of bombing. Several people have been killed or maimed in accidents with explosives or in violent incidents provoked by drunken military personnel. In April 1999, David Sanes Rodríguez, a civilian Viequense security guard working for the Navy, was killed when an F-18 fighter jet accidentally dropped two 500-pound live bombs on the observation post where he was working.
Rodríguez's death sparked a civil disobedience campaign against the bombing. Thousands of people participated in the campaign, establishing camps within the bombing range and acting as “human shields” to block the Navy from carrying out military maneuvers. In May 2000, over 200 people were arrested in the protest camps. In October 2000, a group that included the former mayor of Vieques and a Catholic Church deacon entered the bombing zone during shelling from ships and air-to-surface operations.
“Our people risked their freedom and their lives in the many civil disobedience actions because we decided we would no longer tolerate military abuse and the violation of our right to live in peace,” says Nilda Medina, coordinator of the Peace and Justice Camp that blocked the main entrance to the bombing range from December 1999 until the mass arrests in May 2000.
In the following three years, over 1,000 people were arrested, including such high-profile figures as Reverend Al Sharpton, Robert Kennedy, Jr., and New York's 1199 Union President Dennis Rivera. Hundreds lobbied in Washington, DC, and over 100,000 marched in Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan. The governor of Puerto Rico and non-governmental groups from Vieques sued the Navy. Viequenses traveled to cities in the U.S. and around the world to generate support for their struggle.
Finally, in January 2003, the secretary of the Navy certified the closing of the Vieques bombing range.
For now, the land has been transferred to the Department of the Interior to be administered as a wildlife refuge. During recent public hearings, community members reiterated the demand for return of every inch of Vieques lands to its people.
The bombing range and adjacent small arms ranges are contaminated with depleted uranium and heavy metals, requiring major environmental cleanup. The island also requires economic rehabilitation. The arrival of the Navy in the 1940s dislocated thousands who were forced from land they had lived on for generations.
The Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (CRDV), a community organization that fought the bombing range, has drawn together Puerto Rican scholars, legal experts, technicians, and scientists to help articulate a community vision for a demilitarized Vieques. CRDV will push for community participation in the clean-up process, jobs for Viequenses, and the transfer of cleanup-related technologies to Puerto Rican companies to avoid dependency on U.S. corporations.