President George Bush met with the Hispanic Caucus of the House of Representatives last week. They presented him with a petition signed by 110 Democratic members of Congress, asking him to order the immediate and permanent cessation of bombing tests on Vieques, a small island off Puerto Rico's east coast.
The U.S. Navy uses Vieques for what it considers an "irreplaceable" form of weapons training. This practice has been in dispute, especially after a 1999 accident resulted in the death of a Puerto Rican civilian.
During the last two years, there have been massive protests in favor of a permanent end to the U.S. Navy's bombing of the island. Many of Vieques's 9,300 inhabitants live within nine miles of a live firing range, among the closest of any U.S. citizens, according to an article in the New York Times.
The bombings have raised health concerns. Puerto Rican Gov. Sila Calderon (accent over o) told the Associated Press on April 11 that "there has been a dramatic incidence of cancer on the island, a fact demonstrated by three scientific studies." Residents of Vieques have a 27 percent higher incidence than their fellow countrymen.
This high cancer rate brings to question the assertion by Jack Spencer, a National Security policy analyst, who wrote on behalf of the conservative Heritage Foundation, that "the Navy's activities do not pose a health risk to the Vieques population."
The public outcry in Puerto Rico led to the election of Gov. Calderon (accent over o), who ran on a hard-line platform that promised to banish the U.S. Navy permanently. Just before he left office, President Clinton orchestrated a compromise agreement with outgoing Gov. Pedro Rosello (accent over second o). The accord provided for the resumption of "inert" bombing, a grant of $40 million for island needs and the return of 8,000 acres of land to the Puerto Rican government. (The Navy currently occupies two-thirds of the island's 51 square miles.)
The agreement also called for a Nov. 6 referendum to decide whether the Navy should be allowed to stay. If the people of Vieques vote against the Navy, then the military branch would have to leave the island by May 2003. If they vote in favor, the U.S. government will appropriate another $50 million in aid and keep open Roosevelt Roads, a massive naval base that serves as the largest employer in eastern Puerto Rico.
But the House Hispanic Caucus is critical of this compromise, saying in its petition letter to fellow legislators that the Navy's bombing practices will continue to raise serious health and safety concerns for the island's inhabitants.
In the caucus meeting, Bush said that he could not act to remove the Navy immediately because he could not change the Clinton-Rosello (accent over second o) accord unilaterally without time to study it.
But there is every indication that Bush will not favor the Navy's withdrawal at all. His demeanor at the meeting was "long on listening and short on commitments," said Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who attended. Bush announced that he would wait for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's recommendations before taking a stance on the Vieques issue.
In his first four months in office, Bush has been busy defending U.S. military actions. He has been unapologetic for an attack on Iraq, a blunder caused by a naval submarine with a Japanese fishing boat and the spy-plane incident in China. It is highly unlikely that he will abandon the Vieques bombing, which has been a part of U.S. military training for more than 50 years.
But the Puerto Rican people must live with it in their backyard.
Ed Morales is a staff writer at the Village Voice in New York, N.Y. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.