Paradise Lost? The US Navy’s Lasting Legacy on Vieques Island

Saturday, June 5, 2010
By Neil Kopp

The island of Vieques lies approximately seven miles to the east of mainland Puerto Rico and boasts a modest population of around 10,000.  For over 60 years the island’s residents have shared their homeland with the United States Department of Navy (DoN).  The Navy has occupied both east and west ends of the island since 1941 and performed military exercises there until May 2003.  Discontinuation of Navy maneuvers was largely due to civil unrest on the island. Even with the Navy gone, however, their presence lingers.  The contamination caused by years of live fire exercises has stayed and has been attributed to the unusually high cancer rates of Vieques residents.  The Navy and the Department of the Interior, the former and current holders of the land, have both been complacent in their concern for of the health of Vieques residents.  This inaction on the part of the U.S. government should be regarded as human rights violations and acted upon accordingly.  The long term effects of Naval occupation have also created a roadblock to the development, both social and economic, of the island.

The United States Navy has occupied portions of the island of Vieques since 1941.  The occupied land was used for various maneuvers, war games, and weapons testing.  In 1971, weapons targets were established on the island and in 1971 live fire testing began on the eastern side of the island.  The weapons tested included; rockets, bombs, chemical weapons – including agent orange, depleted uranium shells and ship-to-shore weapons.  On nearly 180 days per year and, for almost 30 years, the island and its residents were subjected to a barrage of noise, chemicals and danger.  The constant screaming of fighter jets, followed by explosion after explosion took its toll on the people of Vieques and they decided to do something about it.

The Viequenese began to protest the Navy’s presence and demanded a cease fire in the “live impact area” (LIA) on the eastern end of the island.  “In the early 1990’s a number of Vieques activists formed the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (CRDV) and continued protesting Navy activities in Vieques” (Santana).  Discontent reached a fever pitch when, in April of 1999, David Sanes, a civilian security guard was killed by an errant rocket launched from a Marine Corps F-18 fighter.  Vieques residents had finally had enough.  After the killing of Sanes, protests and demonstrations became frequent and effective.  People began entering the testing sites and refusing to leave.  According to a government document, “dozens of demonstrators entered the range…and established several protest camps, preventing DoN from easily resuming training activities there.” (O’Rourke).  After several similar standoffs and repeated cries for the demilitarization of Vieques, the Navy vacated its occupied lands.  “May 1, 2003, represented a milestone in the struggle for demilitarization , when the US Navy officially closed its base in the eastern half of Vieques ending more than 60 years of military bombing, maneuvers, and experiments” (Santana).  While the maneuvers had ended and the bases had been closed, the Navy left its presence scattered throughout the island and in its surrounding waters.

Unexploded ordinance, toxic materials and pollution are the lasting legacies of the Navy’s occupation of Vieques.  These leftovers have led some to argue that Vieques is not yet fully demilitarized and that, “effective demilitarization should also include cleanup of surrounding waters and the central civilian area” (Santana).  More important than the full demilitarization, however, is the serious health crisis faced on the island.  The Navy’s toxic leftovers are now being linked to disproportionately high cancer and mortality rates of Vieques residents.

Vieques island residents now have a 27% higher chance of developing cancer, compared to the residents of mainland Puerto Rico.  Many have linked this statistic to the ramping up of Navy maneuvering on the island.  Before the bombing began, Vieques residents enjoyed lower than average rates of cancer and disease (Santana).  But, “cancer risk in Vieques has been increasing steadily in statistically significant proportions since the 1970’s, when bombing and military practices intensified” (Cruz, Pollard, Santana). According to a revised report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “several biomonitoring studies have suggested that humans have been exposed to environmental chemicals on the island of Vieques…including arsenic, aluminum, mercury, uranium, and cadmium” (ATSDR).  Scientists have also discovered “significant concentrations” of heavy metals and other toxins linked to munitions in plant species cultivated on the island as well as in fish and shellfish used for food on the island.  The federal government itself has stated that there is, “the likelihood of severe contamination on the bombing range” of the Eastern Maneuver Area and that this area represents “the greatest cleanup challenge on Vieques island” (O’Rourke).

Even though multiple federal agencies have admitted to the damages the Navy has caused to the environment and to the health of the people of Vieques, cleanup and restitution seem very unlikely. Herein lies the greatest challenge for the people of Vieques and it is here that the DoN is guilty of human rights violations against the Vieques residents.  If the lives of unwilling participants of Naval experiments have been endangered or compromised by the actions of the military, the military has an obligation to make things right.  The former bombing sites should be cleaned, the land should be returned to the people, and further study and treatment of the health implications should occur.  The government has failed on all three counts and is therefore violating the right to health as well as the right to development.

The World Health Organization defines the right to health as, “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health” and is classified as, “one of the fundamental rights of every human being…” (Marks).  By directly harming the health of the Viequenese people, the Navy has violated the right to health.  Further, there has been a failure of federal agencies “to provide results of epidemiological tests to Vieques participants, and arrange for necessary health treatments in a timely manner” (Santana).  This failure represents further violation of the right to health.  The government is withholding information and is failing to address treatment issues.  The DoN is also avoiding cleanup issues.

In a strategic land transfer, the Navy gave control of all former occupied land to the Department of the Interior and the National Fish and Wildlife Service who, in turn, designated the thousands of acres as “wilderness areas” and “wildlife reserves.”  While at first glance this appears to be a gesture of good-will, further information suggests otherwise.  According to law, if the areas are designated as wildlife areas and are partitioned off to prevent human contact or public use, the Navy or the federal government are not required to initiate any cleanup action.  So, in giving these ecologically decimated sites back to “nature” they are skirting any obligations of cleanup, leaving all of the health and environmental hazards as they are.  Again, this constitutes a violation of the right to health.  The government refuses to be held accountable for its actions and their consequences.  The land transfer also impedes upon any further development of the island, both socially and economically.

If the land is continually controlled by the government and the cleanup process is ignored, there is little hope of sustainable development on the island.  With an increasingly ill population and no sign of improvement in environmental conditions, Sen’s “removal of deprivation” is certainly not occurring.  Not to mention the social and economic constraints placed on residents forced to care for and cope with sick friends and family.  Also, considering the state of the ecosystem, chances of resuming any sort of agriculture or fishing industries are virtually non-existent.  The best chance for the island’s economic survival seems to be tourism, yet even this encroaches on the rights and development opportunities of the residents of Vieques.  Land speculators will inflate land and commodity prices and many residents will have to take up service jobs and forgo any chance to, “participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural…development” (Declaration on the Right to Development).

The culture and the health of the people of Vieques have been compromised by the action and inaction of the Department of Navy  and the United States government.  Their disregard for the land and the culture of the people of Vieques has contributed to heath issues, mainly cancer, on the island.  They have permanently taken land from the people, contaminated it, and refused to clean it.  They have refused to consider a system of healthcare and disease monitoring.  And, they have impeded the ability of Vieques to move forward with any meaningful process of development.  For these actions and inactions, the Navy and the Department of the Interior are guilty of violating the right to heath as well as the right of development.

© 2010, Neil Kopp. All rights reserved.

2 Responses to “Paradise Lost? The US Navy’s Lasting Legacy on Vieques Island”

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