Heaven and Hell
II. Cancer and Other Worries
III. Ni una bomba más
IV. The Pentagons Report
V. Negotiations with Clinton: The
VI. Behind Closed Doors
VII. "Endless Liability"
VIII. As Long As it Takes
Cancer and Other Worries
Most of the Navys
ordnance is aimed at targets like decommissioned tanks, planes or
Jeeps on Vieques. In theory, the live-fire area is restricted to
nine hundred acres, or about two to three percent of the island.
But targets are sometimes missed, and shells fall on the surrounding
lands and waters.
By the late seventies,
this constant barrage had played hell with the fish, which affected
the local economy. So in 1978, the pescadores protested Navy maneuvers
by rowing themselves into bombing waters, stopping the exercises.
They followed up with
a lawsuit, alleging that the constant shelling was ruining their
But the fish were the
least of it. What became constant were the cancer fatalities,
local resident Stacie Notine observed. From the mid-seventies
and early eighties, we started noticing that many people were dying,
and many more were getting sick.
In a 1978 Water Quality
Survey conducted by the Navy, a powdery toxic residue called Royal
Dutch Explosive (RDX) was found all over civilian land and in the
water supply. The Navy declared the levels safe, but
the locals were not reassured. So two years later, the Navy issued
an Environmental Impact Statement, which concluded that continuation
of Navy activities on Vieques will have no significant impact on
Military ordnance is
highly toxic, and if its not cleaned up, it accumulates. Weapons
are made from intricate combinations of heavy metals such as cadmium,
lead, arsenic and mercury, many of which are carcinogenic. So when
enough of these elements suffuse through the land, sea, and air,
they can cause cancers in individuals or in populations,
where theyre called cancer clusters. The Navy hates talk of
cancer clusters. They fight it every step of the way. And the first
step involves denying their existence.
The militarys strategy
when faced with a possible epidemiological crisis is often one of
Dont look, dont find, a formula for rendering
the visible invisible. If, for example, you want to measure pollution
levels, you need a clean standard against which to measure
how dirty things have become. This is called the baseline
standard. If its based on a polluted sample, then anything
just as polluted will be declared clean if measured against it.
This is what the Navy
was accused of doing in their 1978 Water Quality Survey. As their
baseline sample, they took a lagoon on the western side of the island
which had been used as a naval dumping site. But they didnt
acknowledge that fact (the high levels of lead and zinc were deemed
natural concentrates). Then they measured the pollution
levels in a lagoon on the eastern side, and found surprise!
nothing to worry about. Puerto Ricos Environmental
Quality Board objected to this logic, pointing out the rotting ordnance
in the eastern lagoon. The Navys answer was identification
of the origins of the heavy metals was beyond the scope of the survey.
The water survey was
a skirmish in a war begun a year earlier when Carlos Romero Barcelo,
then governor of Puerto Rico, brought suit against the Navy for
environmental infractions. Over the next five years, the residents
of Vieques would learn what communities across the U.S. discovered
when they went up against the military on health or environmental
violations: theyd hit the wall.
In 1982, Barcelos
suit ended with an out-of-court settlement called an MOU, or Memorandum
of Understanding. The Navy promised to improve safety procedures,
institute a variety of measures for community development, and above
all, they promised to reduce the bombing schedule.
Most of which never happened.
Years later, when things had spun far out of Navy control, Marine
Corps General Richard Neal told Congress that a lot of precepts
of the MOU were not lived up to. We gave benign neglect to the health
problems and the cancer issue, and shame on us. Im talking
Department of the Navy, and Ill even say DOD [Department of
Questions were put to
the Navy about what materials they were dumping, burning, or shelling
on Vieques. But for years the Navy stonewalled, delaying funds,
study and remedial action. In a typical exchange, the School of
Medicine at the University of Puerto Rico announced in 1997 that
the cancer rate on Vieques was twenty-seven percent higher than
on Puerto Rico. The Navy diluted the stat by averaging it over a
longer number of years; then they said that even if it were so,
Vieques still had a lower cancer rate than the U.S.
In short, progress was
slow. One of our frustrations has been the distortion of facts,
the Navy told the New York Times. It has unnecessarily alarmed
the people of Vieques.
In Puerto Rican political
terms, Vieques was a fringe issue, of import only to the left-wing
Independence Party (PIP), which garnered about four percent of the
vote. But in global terms, the issue was becoming very significant
Robert Rabín runs the Committee for the Rescue and Development
of Vieques, one of the most active of Vieques many activist
groups. When asked how
Vieques went from Caribbean
backwater to worldwide newspaper coverage, he was quick to answer:
Rabín speaks in
the international dialect of solidarity, a vocabulary familiar to
anti-military activists around the world, from Koreans and Okinawans
distressed by the presence of U.S. Navy bases, to victims of nuclear
contamination in Tennessee. Now their attentions were focused on
Meanwhile, the online
debate over Vieques had reached the Puerto Rican power elite in
the U.S., where the issue exerted a pull as potent as the IRA on
Irish Americans or Israel on Jewish Americans. Through the Internet,
Vieques was building a wide-ranging and influential international
In 1992, la onda Clintonista
hit Puerto Rico in the form of newly-elected Governor Pedro J. Rosselló.
A Harvard- and Yale-trained pediatric surgeon, Rosselló was
elected in 1992 from the PNP, or pro-statehood party. He had grand
plans for integrating Puerto Rico into the world economy, and at
first he was wildly popular.
The PNP had traditionally
allied itself with the Republicans, but Rosselló was different.
He saw himself as a man of vision, perhaps even of destiny, and
he led the party into a new relationship with the Democrats. Hed
gotten to know Clinton through various party conferences, and from
early on had gained
election, unprecedented amounts of money began to flow between Puerto
Rico and Washington. Federal aid increased dramatically especially
in the wake of a few disastrous hurricanes but money also
flowed north, as Rosselló mounted an intense lobbying effort
in pursuit of statehood.
Although Puerto Ricans
cant vote in federal elections, Clinton raised over a million
dollars there for his 1996 campaign, and the Kennedy clan garnered
became an enthusiastic supporter of Clintons neoliberal economic
policies. He privatized shipping companies, hotels, hospitals, and
in what led to massive and prolonged popular protests
Puerto Ricos telecommunications infrastructure.
Then the bomb dropped.