The ferryboat departs from Fajardo, a tiny seaport at the extreme Northeast of Puerto Rico. During the trip we can see a great number of fish jumping like trying to fly from the blue waters and then defeated by gravity falling again into the water. Our destination is the island of Vieques, 18 miles from Fajardo. Called “La Isla Nena” (Little Girl Island) or “Isabel Segunda” (Isabel II), Vieques was founded in 1843 by Francisco Saínz. It’s about 21 miles long and about 5 miles across at its widest point. Vieques derives its name from the Taino Indian word for small island (bieques). It was annexed to Puerto Rico in 1854.
The journey is fast and comfortable and in less than an hour the profile of the island is visible on the horizon. Arawak Indians once lived here and it was an infamous haven for pirates during 17th century. We arrived to a modest dock framed by the typical scenario of the Hispanics coastal towns. The place couldn¹t be more picturesque or beautiful, it is really a lost paradise. But in the middle of so much serenity and peace a terrible menace awaits.
When the US Navy arrived in 1941, there were 10,362 inhabitants in Vieques and 8,000 tons of sugar was produced that year. The Navy expropriated two thirds of the total land, including most of the land used for farming. La Central Playa Grande did the last milling in 1942. During the first couple of years after the Navy arrived, there were plenty of jobs in Vieques in the construction of the bases. People came from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands to work in Vieques. It was an historical moment. World War II was being fought and the place was chosen as training grounds for the Navy. When construction was over the workers left. At the end of 1944 3,000 of the 10,000 inhabitants of Vieques were relocated to St. Croix. The rest were settled in the areas of Santa Maria and Monte Santo in Vieques. There was no sugar and no base construction left to do.
From that moment the Vieques people started enduring hard times. Bombing practices at all hours caused the loss of sleep for the islanders. Even mortal accidents occurred from time to time. With the end of WW II peace did not arrive to Vieques. Now the Cold War demanded more practices and more bombings and later on the members of NATO were allowed to use the island for their own war games. The consequences to the ecology and the health of the population, the destruction of archaeological sites and the restricted access to the beautiful resources on the bases were part of the problems caused by the continued used of the island for the military practices.
For decades the people of Vieques accepted stoically these sad conditions of life as their contribution to the fight for a free world. But now, even when the Cold War is over the situation is getting worse. We have been told that without the pressure of a nuclear threat it is not necessary to continue the patrolling of nuclear submarines or practices with nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, in May of this year, the Navy admitted the use of Depleted Uranium projectiles during exercises on Vieques in March of 1999. This information came at a time when the Puerto Rican government at the request of the Vieques Municipal Assembly and the Committee for Rescue and Development of Vieques was preparing an epidemiological study to investigate why Vieques suffers a 27% higher cancer rate than the rest of Puerto Rico. The attested activity of the Trident nuclear submarines on Puerto Rico¹s waters is a flagrant violation of the Tlatelolco Treaty which calls for ” banning tests, use, production or acquisition of any type of nuclear weapons, its storage, installation, delivery or possession in the Latin America and Caribbean zone”. The United States signed the Treaty in 1982 and Puerto Rico was considered in the Latin American zone.
To add insult to injury, in 1976 the newspaper Newsday from New York reported that Michael Greenwood, a former U.S. military scientist, cited during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that the Navy accidentally lost a nuclear bomb in waters off the coast of Vieques in 1966. During the 70¹s the Navy used trained dolphins on failed maneuvers trying to pinpoint the nuclear device. The terrible menace of its plutonium to be released due to the water¹s corrosion is a time bomb for the Caribbean Sea.
The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation is supporting the petitions made by NGO¹s like Pax Christi and the Committee for Rescue and Development of Vieques. They are united with many other groups in Puerto Rico who call for the closing of the U.S. Naval Station Roosevelt Roads located in the town of Ceiba to cease the menace of nuclear accidents on the only nuclear free zone in the world. To achieve this task, the countries signatories of the Tlatelolco Treaty and OPANAL (Organism for the Proscription of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean) must endorse the explicit inclusion of Puerto Rico at the next OPANAL General Assembly in Lima, Peru this coming December. Due to its particular political relationship with the United States, Puerto Rico does not have self-representation in OPANAL nor in any other regional or international organizations therefore does not enjoy voting rights.
During our visit to Puerto Rico, representing NAPF for the Abolition 2000 campaign, we witnessed a united country asking for justice. Puerto Rico hopes that the nuclear nations will listen to them and will eliminate without delay the nuclear weapons, that terrible technology capable of wiping out the miracle of life from our beautiful blue planet.
*Ruben Arvizu is the Coordinator of NAPF for Latin America. He collaborated with the Cousteau Society as Representative to Latin America and Film Producer. As international journalist he has been awarded with the “Silver Pen” the “Golden Palm” and “Isabella of Spain”. Presently he is working in his upcoming book “Chapultepec, The Clash of the Eagles” with the theme of the Mexican-US War of 1846.