Jean Piere Candelier
To the typical sun-starved North American tourist, Nanette Rosa’s life probably looks idyllic. When I met the 38-year-old mother in the spring of 2010 she was living in a tent on the beach with her daughters – Coral, 17, and Ainnanenuschka, 14 – just outside the village of Esperanza, on the picturesque southern coast of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. Coral and Ainnanenuschka ate fresh fruit, swam in the blue Caribbean waters and – when they felt healthy enough – rode wild horses that trotted by.
But throughout the girls’ lives, cancer festering in their bodies has interrupted these brief, peaceful interludes. Coral was born with “blue baby syndrome” (she wasn’t able to carry oxygen), and doctors performed a colostomy when she was six months old after finding eight tumors in her intestines and stomach. That she has lived this long is a miracle. Ainnanenuschka was diagnosed early with Ewing’s Sarcoma, and part of her leg was removed and implanted in her chin. The younger girl has no health insurance in Puerto Rico. Nanette was planning a lavish quinceañera for Ainnanenuschka this past November, knowing that every birthday could be her last.
Nanette and her daughters are among the 7,000 Viequenses – three quarters of the island’s population – who sued the US government in 2007 with the help of Mississippi attorney John Arthur Eaves. For over six decades the US Navy operated a base on Vieques, occupying the western third of the island and conducting live bombing runs over the eastern half and testing chemical weapons used in wars from Vietnam to the Balkans to the Persian Gulf. As a result, the lawsuit alleges, Viequenses today suffer 30 percent higher cancer rates than mainland Puerto Ricans, 381 percent higher rates of hypertension, 95 percent higher rates of liver cirrhosis and 41 percent higher diabetes rates. Infant mortality is 25 percent higher than it is elsewhere in Puerto Rico.
Viequenses succeeded in kicking the US Navy off their island in 2003, following years of civil disobedience and mass arrests. In doing so, they became a model worldwide for successfully resisting colonialism. But the movement has since run into a legal and political wall. Last spring a federal judge in San Juan threw out the class action lawsuit, forcing Eaves to appeal the case to the First Circuit Court in Boston. The attorney hopes that 2011 will finally bring justice for the island’s residents.
Meanwhile, President Obama hasn’t followed through on campaign pledges to help Vieques. During the Democratic primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, Obama wrote a letter to Puerto Rican Governor Acevedo Vila, stating that, were he to be elected, “My Administration will actively work with the Department of Defense as well to achieve an environmentally acceptable clean-up… . We will closely monitor the health of the people of Vieques and promote appropriate remedies to health conditions caused by military activities conducted by the US Navy on Vieques.” Since taking office, the Obama White House hasn’t done anything to address the issue.
Washington has, on occasion, hinted that it may air the truth about Vieques. A May 2009 US congressional investigation after Hurricane Katrina found that Gulf Coast evacuees’ trailers were contaminated with formaldehyde and accused the Centers for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) of colluding with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to “deny, delay, minimize, trivialize or ignore legitimate health concerns.” Through that window, the Vieques case resurfaced, and a team of ATSDR scientists began re-examining environmental health data on the island.
World War II history buffs may not know this, but the 21-by-4-mile-wide tropical island, eight miles east of the Puerto Rican mainland, was prominently featured on the maps of Allied military planners. Early in the war, the US Navy occupied Vieques and moved much of its population to the Virgin Islands in preparation to relocate the British fleet in case England fell to the Nazis. That never happened, of course, but following the Allied victory, the Pentagon found other uses for the island. Vieques became the testing ground for nearly every weapon that the United States used during the Cold War.
Between 1941 and 2003, the Navy dropped billions of tons of bombs on Vieques, releasing toxic chemicals into the soil, water, and air, which the local population – as well as scientists and attorneys – link to dramatically high rates of physical and psychological illnesses like those that have befallen Nanette Rosa’s family.
“It felt like a war zone,” says one Vieques
resident. “Everything on your walls would
fall to the floor and break.”
Nanette Rosa – whose mother had a cancerous tumor removed from her breast in 2007 – vividly remembers living in the village of Esperanza when the Navy planes would take off from the island’s west coast and fly overhead to drop their bombs in the east. “When the wind came from the east, it brought smoke and piles of dust from their bombing ranges,” she said. “They’d bomb every day, from 5 a.m. until 6 p.m. It felt like a war zone. You’d hear like eight or nine bombs, and your house would shudder. Everything on your walls, your picture frames, your decorations, mirrors, would fall on the floor and break. It wasn’t an earthquake, but your cement house would start cracking.”
Robert Rabin, a Bostonian who moved to Vieques in 1980, said that the island rattled for weeks during the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War. Many in Esperanza developed breathing problems and skin rashes. Coral Rosa was born in 1993 in the mainland port town of Fajardo – the closest hospital to Vieques with a maternity ward. She weighed only four pounds. Doctors told her mother that Coral’s first birthday would likely be her last.
In defiance, in 1995 Rosa sold her new house for a $600, which she used for plane tickets to New York City. Doctors at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn removed half of Coral’s intestines and stomach, saving her life. Because Rosa had no other money, she spent three months sleeping on a hospital bench while her daughter recuperated.
Coral is 17 years old today, much of her cancer is in remission for the moment, and she exudes a cheerful optimism. She has accepted the physical limitations that come with her ill health. “I don’t like the scar on my belly because the other kids tease me,” she said. “They say I got stabbed, or that I was raped.”
Coral has to avoid red meat or large amounts of rice or bread, and she can’t stomach coffee or alcohol. Her ferry trip to the hospital in Fajardo, often for MRI scans, is a well-worn journey. On her most recent visit, the doctors discovered new tumors in her ovaries. How Nanette Rosa will continue to pay for Coral’s trips to the mainland and for the expensive treatments – not to mention the thousands of dollars she still owes Kings County Hospital – eludes her.
“I’m 100 percent confident that the lawsuit will succeed, because the Lord told me so,” said Rosa, a devout Pentecostal Christian. “I read in the Bible that every damage caused to the Earth has to be repaid.”
John Arthur Eaves’s lawsuit on behalf of Vieques has not yet been heard in US federal court because the Justice Department is hiding behind a cloak of “sovereign immunity” – a strategy hailing from the monarchic period when “the king could do no wrong.” In a brief on July 1, 2009, the Justice Department asked the courts to throw out the Viequenses’ suit on the basis of sovereign immunity, which the 1991 Supreme Court case United States v. Gaubert defined as a “discretionary function” exception that “insulates from tort suit liability governmental actions and decisions which are unconstrained by mandatory and specific regulations and statutes and are grounded in consideration of public policy.” In layman’s terms: The government can do what it wants.
The Vieques suit was rejected on April 13, 2010 by a federal judge, Daniel R. Dominguez, who sits on the US District Court in San Juan. Unless a federal judge rejects the notion of sovereign immunity, no scientific evidence linking the bombs on Vieques to high cancer rates will ever reach the courtroom.
“The US government wants the case dismissed,” Eaves said. “We claim their actions should not be protected under sovereign immunity, because when the government steps outside its discretion, its actions are no longer protected. We know that in at least one year the Navy violated the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standards 102 times.”
Eaves calls the Vieques case a personal mission, one that he’ll carry as far as appeals will let him. The 44-year-old Mississippi trial lawyer has been involved with other high-profile international lawsuits. He represented five German families and a Polish family after a low-flying US Marine plane severed a gondola line at an Italian ski resort in 1998, killing 20 people. He represented the nation of Ukraine against US tobacco companies, and he currently represents US soldiers who claim complications from Gulf War syndrome. In 2007 Eaves, a Democrat, ran for Mississippi governor but lost to Republican Haley Barbour.
“What we’re looking for (in a settlement) is a value that’s respectful, a value that treats people as if they were living in New York, or Mississippi, or Chicago,” Eaves said. “We’re looking at what the US paid to Marshall Islanders who suffered under experiments, or people who had radiation out West, or the Japanese internment.”
Eaves’s star witness, should the Viequenses ever get their day in court, is Sgt. Hermogenes Marrero, a Special Forces Marine who spent 18 months on Vieques during the early 1970s. Today Marrero suffers from many of the same medical conditions as the local population. The Puerto Rican native, raised in Queens, NY, arrived on the island in 1970 with the task of guarding the vast array of chemical weapons the Navy tested there. Marrero was exposed to toxics, including napalm and Agent Orange. He developed massive headaches and nose bleeds, and suffered nausea and severe cramps. “I witnessed some of the most awesome weapons used for mass destruction in the world,” Marrero said. “I didn’t know how dangerous those chemicals were, because it was on a need-to-know basis.”
Today, Marrero waits in the city of Mayaguez in western Puerto Rico for his chance to testify in court against the US military for poisoning the people of Vieques and the soldiers based there – if he lives that long. Marrero has been diagnosed twice before with colon cancer and suffers today from a dozen other illnesses, including Lou Gehrig’s disease, failing vision, a lung condition that keeps him on an oxygen tank around the clock, not to mention tumors throughout his body. The terminally ill and wheelchair-bound 58-year-old veteran sent me his medical history this past August – a day before undergoing heart surgery in San Juan – just in case he didn’t make it.
“These are American citizens, yet we violated their human rights,” the former Marine told me. “This would never have been allowed to happen in Washington or Seattle or Baltimore.”
The US government has admitted to the presence of napalm, Agent Orange, depleted uranium, white phosphorous, arsenic, mercury, lead, and cadmium on the former bombing range in eastern Vieques. In 2005, the EPA classified the island as a Superfund site, which placed the cleanup of hazardous sites in federal hands. Nevertheless, Washington rejects allegations that the Navy’s activities poisoned residents. To bolster its case, the government cites a controversial 2003 study by the ATSDR.
ATSDR is currently under Congressional Review for using inadequate science and improper research techniques. On March 10, 2009, the House Committee on Science and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight issued a report titled “The ATSDR: Problems in the Past, Potential for the Future,” alleging that the ATSDR “studies lack the ability to properly attribute illness to toxic exposures and the methodologies used by the agency to identify suspected environmental exposures to hazardous chemicals is doomed from the start.” It also states that, “In many, many cases ATSDR seems to get the science wrong, ignores community complaints or both… . Many independent scientists and health experts question” the ATSDR’s findings.
Among them is Arturo Massol, a biologist at the University of Puerto Rico who has studied toxic contamination on Vieques. Massol calls the ATSDR study unscientific, if not outright criminal.
“A battalion of researchers came here and used poorly designed scientific experiments to conduct a political assessment that intentionally covered up reality,” Massol said. “The Navy is gone, but these agencies should be charged as accessories to murder because preventative policies could have been established after 2003.”
The bombing range in eastern Vieques was indisputably subjected to more than 60 years of non-indigenous chemicals, according to Massol. There are no other sources of industrial pollution on the island, which is rural and undeveloped today, largely because the Navy seized most of the infrastructure. Those toxic metals accumulated in the biomass of plants and were eaten by cows and fish. Once pollution reached the vegetation and the base of the food chain, it was transferred into humans. Massol and other independent scientists found that animals on Vieques had 50 times more lead and 10 times more cadmium than animals on mainland Puerto Rico.
“There are thousands of bombs in the marine setting, oxidized and leaking,” Massol said. The sea grasses tested by Massol have accumulated large concentrations of heavy metals. And those heavy metals then bio-accumulate up the food chain. Many Viequenses, like Nanette Rosa’s family, have traditionally subsisted on fish.
Massol said that each time a new alphabet soup agency from Washington studies the link between the US Navy’s pollution and diseases on the island, they re-write and re-phrase their conclusions. Other scientists conduct peer reviews but Massol believes they keep missing the big picture.
“They’re doing a political assessment of scientific evaluations in order to comply with pressure the US Congress is putting on them,” he said. “In the end, I don’t think they will come up with a report to protect the lives and health of people on Vieques, but instead to safeguard the US Navy and other federal institutions.”
Viequenses like Nanette Rosa and Robert Rabin are confident that Eaves’ lawsuit can succeed. That’s because the islanders have battled Goliath before, and won. The story of their resistance to military colonialism is an epic tale, and one that has turned Vieques into an international model for seemingly powerless populations opposed to the US military machine. Rabin and his wife Nelda have received delegations from other communities occupied by the US military, namely Okinawa and the Philippines. They’ve held conference calls with activists in Hawaii, the Marshall Islands, Guam, and Vicenza, Italy – all outposts of Uncle Sam.
The protests against the US Navy’s presence came and went during its six-decade-long occupation, according to Rabin, who became a leader within local activist circles. During the McCarthy period, protesting American militarism was akin to making pro-Communist statements. Meanwhile, the western third of Vieques turned into a red light district of bars and brothels. Violence against women, riots, and even fights between black and white troops were rampant. Former mayor Radames Tirado – 13 members of whose family were diagnosed with cancer – told me that uniformed men would stumble through the streets at night, knocking on doors and windows, looking for women.
The first organized struggles took place in 1964 when community leaders and religious and political heavyweights throughout Puerto Rico organized the first Committee in Defense of Vieques. The Navy stopped bombing the nearby island of Culebra in 1975 following years of nonviolent civil disobedience. But then the Navy dramatically escalated its bombardment of Vieques. In 1979, 21 activists were arrested inside Navy territory during a peaceful protest. One of them, Angel Rodriguez Cristobal, a Vietnam veteran and father of two, was sent to Tallahassee federal prison. He was beaten to death in his jail cell and became a martyr for the movement.
As Rabin put it, intense repression and a deep divide among Puerto Ricans over their relationship with the United States calmed things down during much of the 1980s and 1990s. Then on April 19, 1999, during a Navy bombing run, an F/-18 fighter pilot accidentally dropped two 500-pound bombs on its own observation post, killing a Viequense civilian security guard named David Sanes.
“That shook the consciousness of the people of Vieques and Puerto Ricans at large like no other event had ever done,” Rabin said. “Almost immediately we had unity across ideological, political, religious, and geographic boundaries.”
The leaders of Puerto Rico’s three main political parties sent letters to President Clinton calling on him to stop the bombing. Bishops of every church, from Protestant to Pentecostal, Catholic to Methodist, joined hands and were arrested, together with union leaders and singers. The authorities arrested 1,500 for trespassing, and Rabin and three others did six months in federal prison in San Juan for occupying the bombing range in eastern Vieques – an area that Rabin said has more craters from bombs than many parts of the moon.
The islanders’ sympathizers began to include the powerful and famous. US Congress members joined the protests, as did Bobby Kennedy, Jr., Nobel Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchu, and former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias. Finally, on May 1, 2003, Congress passed the Spence Act as part of the 2004 military appropriations budget, and transferred jurisdiction over Vieques from the Navy to the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Division. Viequenses partied like mad.
Yet despite the success of the multi-decade effort, the US government has yet to admit guilt, or pay reparations. And 60 years of subjugation, victimization, and isolation have left 72 percent of Viequenses below the poverty level, with nearly 50 percent unemployment, as well as high teen pregnancy rates, rampant drug and alcohol abuse, and broken families.
“I have no doubt there are psychological effects of the Navy being here,” Rabin said. “Having your home taken from you, and your streets patrolled by MPs when hundreds of military guys were on leave here in the ’40s through the ’70s. On Vieques there were more bars here per capita, and prostitution, than any other place in Puerto Rico.”
Today, the MPs have given way to tourists, and the gentrification that often invades sun-soaked beach communities. Seven years after the Navy left Vieques, American civilians are now arriving in droves. Starwood’s W Hotel recently opened on the island. This has created some jobs, Rabin admitted, but tourism offers only menial employment. Ninety percent of the hotels and restaurants here are owned by the yanquis. Real estate prices are soaring and some Viequenses are selling off their own land The great irony is that tourism and gentrification might do what the Navy couldn’t – remove the population.
What the locals need, Rabin said, is good housing, health care, and employment. “Vieques just needs what it has been denied: the right to live in peace. And we believe that peace is much more than just the absence of war.”
Journalist and videographer Jacob Wheeler works for The UpTake and publishes the Glen Arbor Sun in northern Michigan. His book, Between Light and Shadow, about Guatemalan adoption, will be published in April.
We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate
For $20 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.