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Vieques cheers navy exit { May 1 2003 }

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Vieques cheers Navy exit, at last

Today, May 1, 2003, is a historic date for the people of Vieques. It is the long-awaited day when the U.S. Navy, after 60 years of using the tiny Puerto Rican island for target practice, is finally leaving it alone.
And ecstatic Viequenses are throwing a four-day, around-the-clock party, complete with fireworks, food, music and dance. They have plenty of reasons to celebrate.

The islanders, though, are not the only ones who feel a celebration is in order. Four New York politicians who served jail terms in 2001 for participating in a May 1 protest against the Navy presence in Vieques are traveling to the little island to join the festivities.

"I want to congratulate the people of Vieques, who taught me the value of working together to achieve a goal," said Assemblyman José Rivera, the Bronx Democratic Party leader who, with Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión and former Bronx Assemblyman Roberto Ramírez, served a 40-day jail term. Activist the Rev. Al Sharpton was sentenced to 90 days.

"We are going to Vieques to be with its people in this historic occasion," Rivera said.

It came after a protracted and difficult struggle. The Navy's presence in Vieques goes back to the 1940s, but, incredibly, the 9,300 people of the island - all of them American citizens by birth - have nothing to show for it.

Actually, 72% live below poverty level, and 50% are unemployed. Not to mention that Viequenses suffer disproportionately from cancer, cardiovascular diseases and other illnesses.

This is not surprising, given that servicemen and women on more than 1,300 warships and 4,200 aircraft used the island for target practice over the past 15 years. And the Navy has admitted using shells loaded with depleted uranium - as well as highly toxic napalm - in the island bombing.

In other words, after six decades of being bombed and strafed, problems are plentiful on Vieques. And they will not simply go away with the Navy.

"One could say this is the culmination of a struggle ... a cause for which many have gone to jail and some have lost their lives," said Denise Oller, the Puerto Rican-born anchor for Univision Channel 41 newscast in New York.

Deadly toxins

But activist Ismael Guadalupe thinks there is much more to be done.

"If they do not eliminate the military toxins accumulated over six decades of bombing, the Navy will continue to kill our people for a long time to come," Guadalupe said.

That's why Guadalupe, whose first arrest for protesting the Navy's presence was in 1979, and other pro-peace activists want to make sure the federal government really cleans up its former range of undetonated bombs and napalm it once used.

"The well-being and the safety of the children of Vieques has to be as important in the minds of our leaders as the war on terrorism," Ramírez said.

Plans call for replacing the bombing range with a nature reserve. But many questions remain about the commitment of the Navy - and Washington - to clean up the environmental mess it left behind. Besides, Vieques is so poor and underdeveloped that a visitor may think time has stood still on the tiny island.

"The federal government must be responsible for the cleaning and economic development of its former bombing range," Rivera said. "It would be great if Vieques and its people could join, at least, the 20th century."

We congratulate the people of Vieques and wish them the peace and prosperity they deserve.

Originally published on May 1, 2003

Du vieques { February 4 2001 }
Navy leaves after bombing six decades { May 1 2003 }
Navy leaves vieques { May 1 2003 }
Sharpton hails navy leaving
Vieques activist released { October 7 2002 }
Vieques cheers navy exit { May 1 2003 }

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