of War Games
Two Mississippians are trying to
make the U.S. military pay for its damage to a Puerto Rican island
By Rania Masri
Southern Exposure 32
Before arriving in Vieques, Puerto Rico, earlier this year,
I had imagined this small island (20 miles long by 3.5 miles wide) to be
barren, destroyed by more than 50 years of U.S weapons testing. I had
envisioned a brown island, a tired island.
Instead, I was spellbound by an immensely beautiful place.
When I walked into a local progressive radio station, I
faced my second surprise: two charming men from Jackson, Mississippi. John
Arthur Eaves, from Eaves Law Firm, and Bif Browning, a researcher, are trying
to make the U.S. government pay for health problems that they say the people of
Vieques suffer as a result of the island’s bombardment.
“Our [legal]claim,” explained
Eaves, “is for fear and flight [damages] plus medical problems plus future
medical costs. Presently, we have 7,500 people that are sick. We want them to have enough money so each
family can decide the best way to protect themselves. The Navy stated that it
would honor its commitment to repair the injury to the health of the people—as
long as we proved our case. And we’re going to continue working to make sure
that they honor their commitment.”
and Eaves were first invited to work on the case by Vieques resident Rodami
Serato, who told them that 13 of his relatives were suffering from cancer.
“They started bombing the
island in 1941, so the weapons they’ve used have evolved over time,” says
Browning. “They’ve used everything from [small] bombs—50 pounds to 100 pounds—up to 3,000 and 5,000-pound bombs. Just
the sheer size of the bombs would do damage to the island and shake it and
damage the structure of the house and cause a lot of nervous problems in the
children.” He compares the effects of the largest bombs to earthquakes.
From the 1950s through the
70s, Browning says, Vieques was also the main chemical weapons testing ground.
“We know by the navy’s
that they’ve used depleted uranium here. They’ve used napalm.
They’ve done all kinds of electronic and radiological testing. They’ve have
dispersed chemical sprays [and] defoliants, possibly Agent Orange. This island
for 60-plus years has been in a state of war.”
put,” adds Eaves, “everything that our military has used—with the exception of
the nuclear bomb—has been first tested on Vieques.”
military not only used approximately 75 percent of the island for its testing
range, it also tested weapons directly on the people of Vieques. According to
Eaves and Browning, a former marine has revealed that during the nighttime,
U.S. soldiers would come through town in jeeps dispersing chemical sprays. The
two also say that a U.S. general has praised the Vieques range for the realism
of its training, due to the close proximity of the civilian population.
land has been so contaminated that it no longer can produce healthy food, and,
thus, not only has a serious consequence on human health, but also has reduced
economic health on the island. Cattle-grazing was a large scale operation,
until some cattle recently tested positive for contaminants.
though the bombing has stopped, the people will continue to be exposed to
toxins in the environment for years, according to Eaves, and could pass them on
to their descendants. “Generations are
passing on a contaminated legacy,” says Eaves. “Until we are told of all that
has been used here, and conduct the research to identify which plants can be
used for bioremediation, the people will remain at risk with anything they eat.
Until the Navy recognizes its responsibility and owns up to everything it used
here so that science can study it more in depth, the people are at high risk.
“This is the clearest case of environmental racism
that we have observed, and we are from Mississippi and we’ve seen many things.”
people of Vieques are not alone in their suffering. “Many soldiers have been
damaged by the things that were developed here in Vieques,” says Browning. “We
know many of our own soldiers have type two diabetes from cellular mutation
caused by Agent Orange. We know that napalm has harmed many of our soldiers.
All those things were developed here in Vieques first. So, as a result of what
is happening in Vieques, many soldiers have been hurt.”
explains that the politics of the Vieques controversy have shifted as a result
of pressure from the increasingly powerful Hispanic and Puerto Rican
communities. “These people have been suffering here for many, many years. It is
only recently that their voice has been heard in Washington.” The Black and
Asian caucuses in the U.S. Congress have also lent their support to the cause.
campaign against the Vieques live-fire testing range kicked into high gear in
1999, after a stray bomb killed a civilian security guard. In February 2003,
the U.S. military finally announced it was abandoning the Vieques range. Bob
Rabin, head of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, and one
of the lead organizers of the massive civil disobedience actions, calls this “a
victory for Vieques, for Puerto Rico, and for the world.”
victory has given hope, given an opportunity for the earth to cure itself,
opened possibilities for future environmental cleaning,” says Rabin. “This
struggle epitomizes the colonial situation of Puerto Rico. And we stopped the
U.S. military from using Vieques to prepare aggressive military attacks,
invasions against people throughout the world.”
learned, Rabin said, that “the federal system—when confronted by a determined community—can be defeated.”
s and testing, of course, continue elsewhere. According to
Rabin, the military has moved its activities to several sites on the Gulf and
south Atlantic coasts, in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, including a
large bombing range in the Okala forest.
urges Southerners to protest these facilities used to replace Vieques, as “an
act of solidarity with Vieques and the rest of the world. Every step we take to stop U.S. militarism is
a step towards world peace.”
Rabin of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques can be
contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rania Masri is an associate editor of Southern Exposure.