The U.S. military needs to leave the island of Vieques immediately. Pentagon bombing raids there have already done too much damage to the citizens and environment of Puerto Rico.
On May 4, hundreds of U.S. marshals and Puerto Rican riot police removed 224 protesters who were camping on property that the U.S. Navy uses as a firing range. These demonstrators were part of a nonviolent effort to reclaim the island for peaceful purposes.
Since 1941, the U.S. Navy has occupied 26,000 of Vieques' 33,000 acres. It has used the island's beaches for target practice, naval maneuvers, amphibian landings, munitions storage and toxic-waste disposal.
In April 1999, a stray bomb killed a civilian security guard who worked on the firing range. That was the last straw for the residents of Vieques and for concerned citizens from all over Puerto Rico. Since then, protesters -- including members of religious, student and peace organizations -- have camped on the range in order to serve as human shields to prevent the Navy from resuming bombing.
The Puerto Rico Bar Association has determined that the U.S. government is violating several of its own laws by occupying Vieques. Those laws include the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Executive Order on Environmental Justice, which was signed by President Clinton himself.
The association also believes the Navy's presence betrays international commitments like the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1992 Rio Declaration.
The Navy has no credibility in Vieques. In 1983, it signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of Puerto Rico. The Navy committed itself to help protect Vieques' environment and help with its economic development. Last year, a panel named by Defense Secretary William Cohen, which included former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, concluded that the Navy did not honor the promises it had made in the memorandum.
Defenders of the Navy say the protesters are seeking a confrontation that will worsen relations with Puerto Rico. They point out that Clinton proposed a referendum, which could be held sometime between now and May 2003, when Vieques residents will decide whether they want the Navy to stay.
But that referendum is not what it's cracked up to be. According to Clinton's proposal, the Navy would determine the parameters of the referendum, even its date. That is completely unacceptable.
In a democracy, the military is supposed to stay away from electoral politics. And even if residents vote for the Navy's departure, it will stay for three more years, practicing with inert non-explosive ammunition for 90 days a year.
It is also wrong to poll only Vieques residents in the referendum. The bombing range is a matter of concern to most Puerto Ricans. Imagine if the military were to occupy a Hawaiian island and other Hawaiians were told to keep out and mind their own business.
Many people in Puerto Rico do not want the Navy to withdraw immediately and permanently.
Americans living in the 50 states must make it clear to Clinton that he must do the right thing as commander in chief and order the Navy to end its training activities in Vieques immediately. He should also order the military to clean up the toxic mess it has made on the island.
The Navy won't like being kicked out of Vieques, but in a democratic republic, the civilians are in charge, not the military. At least that's what we were taught in school.
Ruiz-Marrero is a reporter in Puerto Rico and a research associate at the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont. Write him at the Progressive Media Project, 409 E. Main St., Madison, Wis. 53703. Distributed for the project by KRT News Service.
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