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April 2000
Vieques bombing
US Navy bombing practice at Vieques Island, 1997.
Photo provided by the San Juan Star.
The US Military and Puerto Rico

Vieques, Puerto Rico. Efforts to evict the US Navy from this island, located to the east of the big island of Puerto Rico and presently home to 9,400 people, have been occurring for decades. Recently, large demonstrations and organizing work in the United States and in Puerto Rico have again spotlighted the US military’s involvement in Vieques and brought public attention to the island.

But the US military presence in Vieques is not unique. The struggle over this island highlights the larger issue of the relationship between the US military and Puerto Rico (technically a US "commonwealth" and recognized as a colony by the United Nations). Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans have been highly impacted by US militarism. Young people are heavily recruited by the US military and Puerto Rican land and resources are expropriated and damaged.

Many people, including students and other young people, are outraged by these practices. They have been working hard to get the US military out of Puerto Rico. For instance, in May, students at the University of Puerto Rico went on strike to protest recent events in Vieques. In the United States, many groups of young people are putting pressure on professors and community leaders to denounce military practices in Puerto Rico, especially in Vieques. Such activities will hopefully help to put an end to the destructive practices of the US military in Puerto Rico.

Here’s a glimpse of the impact of the US military on Puerto Ricans and Puerto Rico:

Puerto Ricans in the US Military and Military Programs

  • Puerto Ricans have served in the US military for 100 years.
  • Under the Jones Act of 1917, Puerto Ricans became eligible for the US draft.
  • Number of Active Duty Enlisted Members of Puerto Rican Ethnicity
    Army:
    9,529
    Navy:
    3,780
    Air Force:
    2,890
    Marines:
    2,145
    Total:
    18,344

    All figures for FY 1998.

    The data detailing the number of Puerto Ricans who serve as officers is unavailable.
    During major conflicts (World War I, World War II, Korean, Vietnam, and the Gulf), the percentage of US armed services members who were Puerto Ricans from the island was among the highest when compared with the 50 US states.
  • Puerto Ricans comprised 1.57% of the active duty enlisted service members in 1998. Of identified ethnic groups, only Mexicans, Filipinos, and "other Hispanics" have higher percentages. The Army has particularly high rates of enlisted Puerto Ricans: 2.37%. (These figures include both people from Puerto Rico and people of Puerto Rican heritage who are from the 50 states or Washington DC. They are based on self-identification.)
  • Puerto Rico has 9 JROTC programs which enroll well over 1000 students. Several of these are in military academies.

US Military in Puerto Rico

  • In 1998, the Department of Defense reported that there were 25 military installations in Puerto Rico. An AFSC report states that these installations occupy about 13% of the land in Puerto Rico.
  • The US military views Puerto Rico as important for several reasons: its strategic location, its use as a center for US military training, and as a replacement due to the closure of US military installations in Panama.
  • Nuclear weapons have been stationed in Puerto Rico (despite treaties which ban them in Latin America), related weaponry has been tested there, and the US has prepared a nuclear weapons communications network there.
  • US military operations which have been launched from Puerto Rico include Guatemala (1954), the Dominican Republic (1965), Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), and preparations for wars in Iraq (early 1990s) and the former Yugoslavia (1999).

Vieques

  • The Navy has used the island of Vieques for combined land, air, and sea operations and practice and for munitions storage and practice. It controls approximately two-thirds to three-fourths of the land. The US also rents out the use of Vieques to NATO and foreign militaries for training.
  • Weapons training and practice has had devastating and dangerous effects for the people, land, and environment of Vieques. For instance, the Navy dropped five bombs a mile from the main town in Vieques (four detonated) in 1993, used napalm in 1992, and fired 263 depleted uranium shells in 1999.
  • On May 4, 2000, US federal authorities removed a group of protestors from the island. The diverse group of nonviolent protestors included elected officials from Puerto Rico and the US, grassroots community leaders, students, religious leaders, union members, and community people. Some of these people had been camped out in Vieques for over a year, ever since two 500-pound bombs (being used for practice for the war in Kosovo) went miles off target and killed a civilian and wounded four others.
  • According to the Puerto Rico Department of Health, the cancer rate in Vieques is 26% higher than the Puerto Rican average.
  • Explosive and toxic materials have been found in the drinking water.
  • Bombings and other testing have caused destruction to the ecosystems of Vieques, including the coastline, coral reefs, lagoons, and forests.
  • Asbestos, lead, mercury, and nitrates are among the environmental pollutants found in Vieques.

Sources/For More Information:

American Friends Service Committee, Latin America/Caribbean Program report: "Colonial Legacy and Military Strategy: The U.S. Military in Puerto Rico"

Latinas & Latinos for Social Change: http://hometown.aol.com/lfsc1999/index.htm

Vieques Libre: http://www.viequeslibre.org

Colonial Legacy and Military Strategy a 1999 AFSC report on the US Military and Puerto Rico

Department of Defense statistics

Meléndez, Edwin and Edgardo Meléndez. Colonial Dilemma. Boston: South End Press, 1993.

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