Vieques 12 Years Later: Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied

Twelve years ago if you happened to be standing at the top of Monte Carmelo in Vieques, Puerto Rico, you would notice something different. Perhaps you would notice the collective sigh of relief, of hope, of victory. Or that the wave of visitors being arrested and detained in masse had eased after the United States finally decided to close its military base that had been used for bombing practice. However, standing there today you may still see bombs exploding as the result of detonation, or hear that local lands remain in federal hands or notice that the ferries from Vieques to mainland Puerto Rico are full of Viequenses seeking health services, many for complicated and serious illnesses. Over 70 years after the arrival of the Navy in Vieques, some have called the compounded and continuous human rights violations on the island a crime against humanity.

On May 1, 2003, the United States Navy finally closed its naval base, the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Area in Vieques after 60 years of using the island to carry out military practices that included live target practice involving bombing and the use of biochemical agents such as Agent Orange, depleted uranium, napalm and white phosphorus. The Navy's arrival in 1941 lead to mass displacement and the expropriation of about 75 percent of the island. For decades, Viequenses were exposed to toxic chemicals, including heavy metals, that have contaminated their bodies, land and water. The killing of David Sanes, a civilian guard on duty in the Naval base, by a 500 pound errant bomb set off a wave of protests, civil disobedience and arrests by thousands of Puerto Ricans and visitors from across the world who said "basta ya!" to the military legacy and toxicity of the Navy's presence and activities. After several years of consistent protests and visits by prominent figures, the U.S. government finally succumbed to international pressure and closed the base.

While many remember that victorious moment, the modern-day realities facing Viequenses are less known. The people of Vieques continue to suffer from disproportionately high rates of grave illnesses, including cancer, hypertension, kidney failure, asthma and other respiratory illnesses. The level of health services in Vieques remains what it was twelve years ago. A small percent of the lands controlled by the federal government have been returned to local control, while the overwhelming majority were merely transferred from one federal agency to another.

As a result of the extreme health and environmental damage caused by the Navy's practices, Vieques was declared a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2005, meaning the site requires a special protocol for cleanup and decontamination procedures because of its level of toxicity. Despite such protocols, the Navy and its contractor, CH2MHill, engage in the use of open-air bombing as a means of detonating found munitions. They also engage in the questionable practice of open-air burning of vegetation as an economical means of finding munitions, both of which have been criticized as exacerbating existing environmental and health damage. There exists no adequate civilian oversight mechanism for a community of dominant Spanish speakers who have been isolated and disengaged from participating in the cleanup process and understanding its ramifications.

The United States has consistently maintained a position of non-liability for its actions in Vieques. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the Center for Disease Control, has been heavily critiqued by scientists and Congress alike for it's "finding" of no ''credible scientific evidence'' to support a relationship between decades of military toxic use and civilian health consequences and environmental damage. The Navy continues to insist that open-air detonation of bombs does not contribute to air pollution since the chemicals released are already naturally occurring; however they are quick to caution residents and visitors not to approach or touch such munitions. They have been suspected of engaging in open-air burning of vegetation to quickly locate munitions at a fraction of the cost, an act that the EPA has said would be unlawful under local law (the Navy has admitted that even tearing up the dense vegetation to clear the remainder of the debris would hurt the nature reserve, much less burning it). In the many lawsuits filed against the United States, including one by LatinoJustice years ago, the government has consistently asserted the antiquated defense of sovereign immunity, insisting their actions are justified by national security reasons and therefore not subject to judicial scrutiny. There are no longer domestic forums available for Viequenses to seek justice, which is why we have asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous organism and quasi-judicial human rights body of the Organization of American States, to look into the situation.

After almost 75 years of exploitation, the people of Vieques have been very clear in their demands: return of all federally controlled lands to the people and municipality of Vieques; adequate and thorough decontamination of all land and water; demilitarization of their land; and locally controlled development. None of those demands have yet been met in full. Just this month, a group of independent scientists met in Puerto Rico to discuss their ongoing concern regarding the state of health and environmental damage in Vieques. And their concern is well-founded - the Navy estimated that they have so far removed 90,000 munitions items; 40,000 of which have been destroyed through demolition. However it has been estimated that the cleanup could take another 14 years, and even then the Navy presumes that not all munitions will be found, "regardless of the level of cleanup." Instead, the Navy has proposed posting warning signs or fencing off areas from the public, which would limit any potential use of the land and relieves them of any responsibility for possible ecological damage that may surface in a toxic site left contaminated and unattended.

Concretely, the United States must be held accountable for its actions that have intentionally violated the most fundamental human rights of the people of Vieques and have led to loss of life and compromised health. The United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization has consistently called for an adequate decontamination effort in Vieques and return of the lands to local control. This past week, several members of Congress called for the U.S. to reexamine its efforts and commitment to the people of Vieques. There have been renewed calls by the scientific community to ensure that the U.S. adequately funds a full and complete decontamination effort in Vieques, not just a cleanup (the Navy has consistently stated that for ten years it has spent close to $20 million per year in Vieques, yet "cleanup" has not necessarily meant "decontamination"). And the people of Vieques have consistently demanded that their own government of Puerto Rico address and remedy the lack of adequate health services in Vieques, which forces residents to spend hours and sometimes days traveling to the main island to seek healthcare. Despite a resolution from the Puerto Rican House of Representatives reaffirming their commitment to justice in Vieques, residents have yet to see concrete actions taken on their behalf.

The United States, which was one of only four countries that recently opposed the United Nations General Assembly's fifth resolution on depleted uranium, has yet to put forward or implement a comprehensive plan that would adequately address the health, environmental, land use and economic concerns residents of Vieques have that stem from decades of military use and abuse. In 2013, Congress approved legislation that asked the Navy to make public and easily accessible historical records on the use, type and frequency of munitions used in Vieques, a request that has still not been satisfied.

In 2008 when then Senator Obama was campaigning, he pledged to "closely monitor the health of the people of Vieques and promote appropriate remedies to health conditions caused by military activities conducted by the U.S. Navy on Vieques." Today, seven years after that promise and 74 years after the invasion of the Navy in Vieques, justice remains delayed and denied. The "appropriate remedies" mentioned by Obama must mean economic, environmental and health justice with the full input and participation of the people of Vieques. And not in several years when yet another generation will struggle with high rates of asthma, respiratory illnesses and developmental and learning disabilities (known side effects of exposure to mercury), as young Viequenses currently do. The United States and the government of Puerto Rico must look beyond the bare minimum required to "cleanup" Vieques, and instead must adequately fund, support and facilitate a full decontamination and health effort. Anything less is ineffective and unjust. After decades of battling the residual toxicity left behind, residents demand a true "paz para Vieques", which is only possible through justice.