National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 9, 2003

The empire rolls back

To the nearly 10,000 residents of Vieques, Puerto Rico, May 1 was a day of liberation.

For more than 50 years, Vieques was used by the U.S. Navy for bombing practice and training, resulting in all manner of catastrophe, from environmental degradation and disease to displacement of many families who called the island off the Puerto Rican mainland home.

The Navy finally abandoned the outpost following decades of protest.

In the 1990s, activists such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the Rev. Al Sharpton made headlines when they joined demonstrations and were arrested for protesting the U.S. military presence. Their high-profile activism kept the pressure on at key moments.

Also key were church leaders, particularly Bishop Alvaro Corrada del Río and San Juan Archbishop Roberto González, both of whom lent material, spiritual and rhetorical support to those fighting to reclaim Vieques for the Puerto Rican people. Corrada del Río and González put the church on the right side of history in this dispute.

The victory is not complete. There are those in Vieques who object to plans to convert 15,000 acres in eastern Vieques to a Department of Interior Wildlife refuge. Many would prefer development of an environmentally friendly (and locally controlled) resort community, especially one that would provide badly needed jobs to locals. The years of U.S. bombing have left a legacy that includes contamination of the island’s water, soil and air. Cancer rates among island residents are, relatively speaking, sky high. A cleanup is planned.

So there is more work to do, and additional issues to resolve.

But, as Corrado del Río declared at the 1999 funeral of David Sanes, a Vieques resident and civilian employee of the Navy killed by a misdirected U.S. bomb: “We all know that the national security of Puerto Rico and the United States requires our participation, but too much can be asked on the road to freedom. Vieques has borne more than its share.”

Indeed it has, but no more. And that is reason to celebrate.

National Catholic Reporter, May 9, 2003

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