It has been a decade since the RFC made its first grants to support the children of activists trying to force the U.S. Navy from using the tiny Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a bombing range. RFC Board Member Rafael Rodriguez (now Board Chair) became actively engaged in the struggle. The RFC has been supporting the children of targeted Vieques activists ever since.
During World War II our Navy took half of Vieques away from its inhabitants. This supposedly temporary seizure continued throughout the cold war. Over a period of sixty years our military dropped approximately one trillion pounds of explosives on what would otherwise have been a beautiful tropical paradise.
Despite the Islanders’ protests, the military exercises that included firing shells containing depleted uranium continued unabated into the 21st century. In 1999, after a protesting Islander was killed by a Navy shell, the community, many of whom were the grandchildren of the originally dispossessed landowners, mounted a campaign of massive civil disobedience to reclaim their island. This movement gained the support of the vast majority of Puerto Ricans and even garnered help from peace activists from the U.S. mainland.
The forces of repression struck back. Non-violent protest leaders received sentences of many months, even years, for their actions. Many of the local leaders were impoverished to begin with. They and their children bore the weight of harsh sentences and massive fines for “damaging Navy property.” Over 1500 were arrested, but the campaign only grew. Finally on May 1, 2003, the Navy closed the bombing range. The most powerful military force on the planet was defeated by peaceful protesters who didn’t fire a single shot.
But some of the leaders of the protests and their families are still reeling from the damage inflicted upon them by our repressive courts. The RFC has made dozens of grants totaling over $160,000 to the children of these courageous activists. We have fulfilled our pledge to become a consistent force of multi-year support for the children of those targeted.
But not all the news is good. The Navy promised to clean up its mess, but it has done nothing. In 2008, then candidate Obama promised: “We will 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.”
Obama has not kept this promise. Vieques remains an environmental disaster, and Islanders suffer from alarmingly high cancer rates and other serious health issues. My wife Elli and I spent a day on Vieques in 2004. We were told there was no problem visiting for a day or even a couple of weeks, but taking up permanent residence on Vieques posed serious health risks.
A decade has gone by. It is past time for the United States government to fulfill its commitment to clean up Vieques and to provide adequate care and compensation to its inhabitants whose health has suffererd as a result of the Navy’s bombing. The activist organization Roots Action has mounted a petition drive demanding our government take these steps. I urge all who read this to add their names here.
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