The Navy, the Island and the Deal

Roger Trilling

I. Heaven and Hell
II. Cancer and Other Worries
III. Ni una bomba más
IV. The Pentagon’s Report
V. Negotiations with Clinton: The Pullout
VI. Behind Closed Doors
VII. "Endless Liability"
VIII. As Long As it Takes

II. Cancer and Other Worries

Most of the Navy’s 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 livelihood.

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 the environment.”

Military ordnance is highly toxic, and if it’s 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 they’re 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 military’s strategy when faced with a possible epidemiological crisis is often one of “Don’t look, don’t 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 it’s 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 didn’t 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 Rico’s Environmental Quality Board objected to this logic, pointing out the rotting ordnance in the eastern lagoon. The Navy’s 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: they’d hit the wall.

In 1982, Barcelo’s 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. I’m talking Department of the Navy, and I’ll even say DOD [Department of Defense].”

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 indeed.
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: “The Internet.”

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 Vieques.

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 constituency.

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. He’d gotten to know Clinton through various party conferences, and from early on had gained
Clinton’s respect.

With Rosselló’s 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 can’t vote in federal elections, Clinton raised over a million dollars there for his 1996 campaign, and the Kennedy clan garnered almost $300,000.

Rosselló also became an enthusiastic supporter of Clinton’s neoliberal economic policies. He privatized shipping companies, hotels, hospitals, and — in what led to massive and prolonged popular protests — Puerto Rico’s telecommunications infrastructure.
Then the bomb dropped.

Vieques Main

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© 2001 Roger Trilling, El Andar Magazine