Why a 33,000-acre island should be preserved
By JONATHAN SUROVELL*
Shunpiking Magazine, Volume 6, No. 32, March 2002
(HALIFAX) – ON JANUARY 14, under the cloak of media silence, Canada was again drawn into a conflict beyond its jurisdiction: the conflict in Vieques, Puerto Rico. Again, our government’s official policy is on the wrong side.
Vieques has been a US military base for 59 years, and is the site of yearly military exercises by NATO’s immediate-reaction naval force. This use is in clear violation of the aspirations and rights of the inhabitants.
Vieques is located in the Caribbean Sea, six to eight miles separating it from the rest of Puerto Rico. It measures 33,000 square acres and has a population of approximately 9,400.
In 1941, over 70 per cent of the island was allocated to the construction of a naval base by the US government – one of thirteen US military bases in Puerto Rico. As a result, much of the population was uprooted from their homes and relocated to a five-kilometre stretch, flanked on either side by exploding bombs, toxic chemicals, and charred earth. The island is, in fact, the only area in the Western hemisphere in which bombing exercises are practiced within such a short distance of a populated area. In April of 1999, a resident of the island was killed and four others were wounded when 500 pounds of explosives were dropped off target. The exercises include not only conventional weapons and live-ammo training, but napalm and depleted uranium as well. The latter have caused the cancer rate on the island to soar 27 per cent above the average for the rest of Puerto Rico and have devastated fisheries and farming land. This in turn has taken its toll on the island’s economy, raising unemployment well above the rest of Puerto Rico’s already high rate.
Every year, Canada sends an Iroquois-class destroyer with the immediate-reaction naval force to take part in the environmental and human destruction of the island. Each is armed with standard missiles, MK46 torpedoes, and various gunry, all of which are tested.
In the 1980s, Canada deployed as many as eleven destroyers and 2,500 sailors in the annual exercise code-named Caribops. It was during one such “fun in the sun” exercise, Ocean Ventures 82, that the invasion of Grenada in 1983 was perfected.
This history of aggression against Vieques has been matched, at every step, by the courageous resistance of its inhabitants. Throughout the 1980s, the hand of NATO was more than once stayed by the peaceful protest of various sectors of the Viequan populais the crushing impoverishment of the local fishers.
The deployment of the immediate-reaction force in the Caribbean is alarming, given the departure NATO is making from its traditional sphere of influence: Europe.
In his speech at the Washington Summit of January 1999, NATO secretary general Javier Solana said that “a more mature trans-Atlantic relationship… offers the greatest payoff,” mentioning that the alliance would now expand its operations “from Canada to central Asia” and that NATO has “created mechanisms to this end.” Among these mechanisms is the proposed “regional cooperation” in the maintenance of “stability.”
With whom would Canada cooperate regionally, and where? Recent US initiatives in the OAS seem to answer this question quite definitely.
Feeling its oil interests threatened by the guerilla movement in Colombia, US officials tried, in June of 1999, to pressure Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela and Peru to form a regional military alliance to intervene against the Colombian rebels. The idea was strongly rebuked. Canada’s representation maintained its dubious silence. A month later, the US again tried to pressure Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, and Peru to form such an alliance independently of any existing organizations. Again, the US was rebuked.
Disinformation of the Halifax media
The silence on the part of the Canadian presence at the OAS becomes more serious in light of Canada’s involvement in the aggression against Yugoslavia – the first war in which Canada fully and openly participated since the Korean war. The immediate reaction force may very well be the continuation of this new militarism.
The American presence on the island was explained very clearly by Senator John Warner at a Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing in October, 1999: “Clearly at a time when our military’s being asked to engage in an unprecedented number of operations around the world, the Department of Defense must ensure that the men and women who are being sent into harm’s way are as well trained and ready as possible.” On this, Canadian politicians again maintained a studious silence.
The monopoly media’s treatment of the issue would be comical were it not for the tragic repercussions. Steve Maich’s article in the Halifax Chronicle Herald (1/14/2000) established beyond a doubt the seasickness that sometimes results from being at sea. However, its treatment of the training and of Vieques is not quite so thorough: “the destroyer HMCS Athabaskan was preparing to leave this morning to join NATO’s immediate-reaction naval force in Puerto Rico. The deployment is to last two months,” he writes. This is the extent of the coverage.
Philip Croucher’s “special” which appeared in the Daily News (1/16/2000), lays equal stress on the hardships endured by the Canadian sailors sent to Vieques: “Getting your sea legs takes time, but even when you settle in, it doesn’t mean you’re immune to the sickness.” Understandably, amid such a wealth of information, Croucher could not fit in any coverage of the situation in Vieques.
Not only is the Canadian public largely unaware of the actions of the immediate-reaction force, but many levels of the Canadian military are not fully informed on the issue.
The lack of information on the humanitarian repercussions of the exercises leads to the view that it is an “American problem” for the Americans to sort out. So long as we are allowed (i.e., by the Americans) to use the base, we are doing nothing wrong.
“If there is a problem with the range being used, it’s the Americans that would handle it, because it is their range but, if we weren’t allowed to use it we wouldn’t be using it,” said Lieutenant Jason Proulx for CFB Halifax.
*At the time of writing, Jonathan Surovel was host of the CKDU Radio programme Arrowhead, Mondays at 5:30 pm, a student at St. Pat’s High School and high school columnist for Shunpiking Magazine. He is currently studying at McGill University in Montreal.