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Obama's unfulfilled promise

On the small island of Vieques, eight miles east from here, 10,000 residents are suffering from rates of cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, hypertension, and diabetes far higher than the average citizen. This pain stems from nearly 60 years of weapons testing by the United States Navy on the island and as mayor for four years, I saw firsthand the long-term effects that the bombings have on its residents.

The Navy was within their rights to test and experiment on this land. Nobody knew what the repercussions would be.  But after the use of more than 80 million pounds of weapons, including napalm, Agent Orange and white phosphorus, the negative effects are not going away, and the people of Vieques deserve better. They deserve to be compensated for their injuries so that they can actually afford the medical treatment they need. 

There is but one primary and urgent care facility on Vieques, and even then most citizens need to go to mainland for emergency care. The diseases mentioned run rampant here; rates of cancer are 30 percent higher than in Puerto Rico, rates of diabetes are 41 percent higher, rates of cirrhosis of the liver are 95 percent higher, and rates of hypertension are a full 381 percent higher. Perhaps most tragically for the future generations of Viequenses, the infant mortality rate is 25 percent higher than in Puerto Rico. These illnesses stem from the high levels of heavy metals left by ordnance testing. One study showed that 34 percent of the islands residents have toxic levels of mercury in their bloodstream, 55 percent are contaminated with lead, 69 percent with arsenic, 69 percent with cadmium, 90 percent with aluminum, and 93 percent with antimony. These numbers are no accident or coincidence; they are the direct result of the weapons testing conducted by the United States government.

Poverty is also high on the island, with 70 percent of the population living below the poverty line. This makes even routine medical procedures hard to afford, let alone those needed to treat their poisoned bodies. The land is contaminated, local food is riddled with toxins and outside groceries are not easy to access, let alone afford. Furthermore, even the weather patterns have exacerbated the health effects of weapons testing, with winds holding toxins and weapons byproducts on the island.

Nine years ago, there was hope for a remedy to the plight of Vieques. When President Obama first ran for president he wrote then-Governor of Puerto Rico Anibal Acevedo Vilá and told him that “My Administration will actively work with the Department of Defense… to achieve an environmentally acceptable clean-up of the former U.S. Navy lands in Vieques, Puerto Rico. 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 U.S. Navy on Vieques.”

Two terms later and the people of Vieques are losinghope. They still don’t have the resources they need and as President Obama prepares to leave office, he will be doing so without following through on his commitment to them.

There is significant precedent for the compensation of people affected by weapons testing, especially when they are American citizens. After nuclear weapons testing in both the Bikini Atoll, in what are now the Marshall Islands, and the state of Nevada, funds were set aside to ease the financial burden that sickness set upon those Americans. Yet on Vieques, the victims  not only lack compensation, but are continually suffering.

As recently as 2011, the White House acknowledged that “there is much that the Federal Government can do to improve the quality of life for the people of Vieques.” It ends with just that, an acknowledgement without action. While neither a specific action nor sum of money would make the Viequenses ailments disappear, financial compensation would alleviate some of their burden---a burden caused by the United States. 

This is not a political issue. It is not an issue that would put the President at odds with the military. This is a public health crisis for some of the poorest citizens. Mr. President, I implore you. You have taken so many actions to follow through on campaign promises that you made. Fulfill your final promise; take action for the people of Vieques. 

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