May 1, 2013 marks the tenth anniversary of the day that the U.S. Navy left the small island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. For 60 years, the Navy used portions of the inhabited island for ammunition storage and military training ranges. On these ranges, the Navy and Marines conducted aggressive air-to-ground bombing, amphibious assaults, ship-to-shore shelling, artillery practice, and a variety of other training exercises involving the use of a wide range of explosives and toxic materials.
The U.S. Navy left Vieques on May 1, 2003 in response to national and international outrage over U.S. treatment of the island, a controversy which was sparked in 1999 when a citizen of Vieques was killed by a bomb that missed its target. However, it would be a mistake to think that the controversy started in 1999; at that time, the island and its people had endured six decades of forced relocation, bombardment, and the introduction of toxic materials to its environment.
The Navy made promises during those six decades to improve the environment, lessen the impact of the training, improve the economy, and treat the people living on the island with respect. Congress held hearings in 1980, 1981 and during the three years following the 1999 accident. But today, 10 years after the Navy left Vieques, the people of the island continue to suffer from poor health, high unemployment, a lack of basic services, and limited access to much of the land that was taken from them 60 years ago.
In the context of this historic anniversary, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) is pleased to announce the publication of Vieques, a Target in the Sun, a report by WOLA Senior Fellow George Withers. Mr. Withers served on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee until 2003, where he handled a variety of policy and oversight responsibilities for the committee. The report—based on Mr. Withers’ years of experience dealing with Vieques in Congress and numerous research trips to the island, including one in early 2013—examines the history of the U.S. Navy’s use of the island, the legislation that further punished its people, and the need for a more aggressive response to address the conditions that continue to afflict the citizens of Vieques.
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