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19 September 2002 Edition

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Puerto Ricans organise against US Navy in Vieques


Contempt, paternalism, discrimination... Many Puerto Ricans feel those words aptly describe their lives as inhabitants of a United States colony. In the case of Vieques, a small island off Puerto Rico's coast, this feeling is exacerbated because three-quarters of the island is used as a training range for the US Navy.

On 23 September, the US Navy will again hold exercises in and around Vieques. This military activity is against the wishes of the inhabitants of the island, who have criticised its impact on the health of islanders and on the island's economic life. US President George Bush said training on Vieques will end in 2003, but opponents want an immediate halt.

"The case of Vieques is one of the most dramatic manifestations of military exploitation and colonialism in Puerto Rico", explains Fermin Arraiza Navas, a Puerto Rican human rights lawyer. "In the case of Vieques, when you visit the target range you can see the ecological destruction and if you study the damage that is caused to the health and life of the people, then you can see the impact of militarism on people's lives."

Three-quarters of Vieques was expropriated in 1941 by the US government. It was not the case of people selling their properties. Their houses were levelled by the US army and they were moved to the sugar cane plantations, where they were forced to build new homes. Immediately, some of those who had been displaced started the struggle to get back their land. Others had to leave the island.

From 1978 onwards, the struggle against the US Navy base in Vieques and against colonialism in Puerto Rico gathered pace, as did the US response. "They eliminated the leaders of the movement by putting them in jail and by assassinating one of them, Angel Rodríguez Cristobal, a socialist leader from Puerto Rico who was found dead in a prison in Tallahassee, US", claims Arraiza.

At the time, support from the rest of Puerto Rico towards Vieques fell because of the repression. But the people of Vieques continued their struggle. "They were alone for more than 20 years, but now they have the support not only from the people of Puerto Rico, but from people around the world," says Fermin. "The main issue now in Vieques is our reluctance to be part of military manoeuvres in order to attack third countries, to contribute to killing innocent people. This is one of our main concerns. But our other main concern is the life and health of the people of the island."

And the worries of people in Vieques increased when they found out via the Internet that the US Navy was offering its Vieques target range to other NATO state members to test non-conventional weapons.

"We have requested in US federal courts details of what kind of non-conventional weapons they have tested and what are the effects of those non-conventional weapons on the health of the people, because Vieques suffers from a cancer rate 20 % higher than the rest of Puerto Rico," says Fermin. "There are no industries or anything than can cause this kind of diseases apart from the military activity in the island. So, we were very concerned."

Their worst fears were confirmed when a specialist in radiation decided to join the civil disobedience movement in Vieques for a visit to the target range - the US Navy does not legally allow anyone to visit the area used for manoeuvres or even excludes fishermen while they are in the area. What they discovered was proof that the US military had used bullets coated with Depleted Uranium during their exercises in Vieques. The US eventually conceded that it had used these kind of bullets by mistake just before Kosovo's war. However, for Jose Juan, another Puerto Rican activist, what they saw and recorded on the target range showed that such ammunition has been used regularly since 1989, before the US launched Dessert Storm against Iraq.

"The reality is that is not only the air or the soil, but also the food chain of the people of Vieques that have been totally polluted," says Fermin. "People are eating poison. And we do not accept any promises that they are going to leave next year, in May 2003. Why do they have the right to keep killing people slowly? This is the reason our movement has grown so strong. It is not exclusively a movement of protest, or of freedom of speech; it is a movement in self-defence, for people to avoid gross contamination and loss of life."

Vieques activists have announced their intention of keeping their civil disobedience campaign going, which means entering the target range as soon as they know that the navy is planning to initiate military exercises. And their campaign has gathered international support, even in the US, where the most progressive sectors of the society have come out in their support - Jacqueline Jackson, wife of Jesse Jackson, the actor Martin Sheen and Robert Kennedy Jr were among over 180 people arrested last year while carrying out civilian disobedience activities in Vieques.

Jackson was jailed for over a week for her protest. Jesse Jackson said the ill-treatment his wife received in the Metropolitan Detention Center, located just outside of San Juan in Guaynabo, and in the courts demonstrated how the US justice system was being subverted to intimidate peaceful protesters.

"The entire justice system is using high bail costs and long jail sentences to enforce Naval policy,'' Jesse Jackson told reporters. "All those forces are working together to discourage the demonstrators' human rights, their right to protest.'"

The situation of Vieques is a clear consequence of the status of Puerto Rico as a US colony. Puerto Rico became a colony of the US after 400 years of Spanish colonialism. After the Spanish-American war of 1898, the US claimed Puerto Rico from the Spanish as a precondition to continuing negotiations.

"Puerto Rico we say is the country that produces what it does not consume and consumes what it does not produce," jokes Dr Nieves Falcon. "It is a tropical country where we import oranges from Florida. Tuna is tinned in Puerto Rico to be sent to the US to be labelled and then the tins come back to Puerto Rico to be sold to the public. And the same happens with other products. And in addition to that we have to use the US merchant marine, which is the most expensive one. That is one of the reasons why the cost of living in Puerto Rico is 30% higher than in New York.

"In trying to confront colonialism, we had pro-independent combatants all the time," said Falcon. "Generation after generation, the struggle has continued. So, there are Puerto Ricans who have been incarcerated for more than 20 years. Generally, Puerto Rican political prisoners are transferred to penal institutions in the US. Falcon cites the stringent conditions attached to outgoing President Bill Clinton's pardons for eleven Puerto Rican political prisoners as an example of what he believes is the repressive attitude of the US towards his country.

Death of Hamide Ozturk

Hamide Ozturk, a woman prisoner, became the latest to die in the Turkish Death Fast on 10 September in Bayrampasa State Hospital. She had been on hunger strike for 436 days. She becomes the 57th death faster to succumb to date.

Ozturk, who was born in Antakya in 1970 of Arab nationality, was a member of the left-wing DHKP-C movement and for her involvement had been sentenced to twelve and a half years in 1996.

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