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The Toxic Legacy Of US Foreign Policy In Vieques, Puerto Rico

Above photo: Tent colony of families displaced by US military in Vieques1941. Jack Delano, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The women of Vieques, an island off the east coast of Puerto Rico, have been on the front lines of the generations-long struggle for peace and justice.

To end the havoc wrought by U.S. foreign policy on their island, in their homes, and on their bodies.

Puerto Ricans had no say in the U.S. war of conquest with Spain over its colonial possessions or in the Treaty of Paris that dictated they were to become the property of a new empire. The United States acted according to a well-crafted strategic narrative  of white saviorism and American exceptionalism without concern for the people whose land it stole. It wanted to further its control to the south and east via its expansionist foreign policy – and it needed to extend military power beyond its violently acquired borders to do so; the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, known as the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, provided the impetus.

In 1941 began the first surge of forced removals in Vieques, an island off the east coast of Puerto Rico. Once again, there was no democratic process, no vote, and no consent was sought or given. This land theft process began shortly before Pearl Harbor. Sugar plantation workers lost their jobs as families were forced from their homes and the subsistence farming plots that fed them. With as little as a 24-hour notice, their belongings were tossed into uncleared resettlement plots that “lacked any previous conditioning, water, or basic sanitary provisions,” and their family homes were bulldozed. Some, including pregnant women and children, were given only tarps to live under for three months until the Navy brought materials for them to build a new home.  Under these conditions, several people became severely ill, and a pregnant woman died.

The second wave of forced removals began in the fall of 1947 with the implementation of the Truman Doctrine. This doctrine marked the shift in U.S. foreign policy toward interventionism in the affairs of other nations to further the interests of the United States and expand its global presence, leading the Department of Defense to become one of the largest real-estate holders, with almost 4,800 sites worldwide     , covering over 27.2 million acres of property. In Vieques, the Pentagon upended the agricultural economy with its seizures of 17,500 acres of agricultural land to create an extensive practice range for war exercises and weapons testing. This land seizure effectively displaced 40 percent of the available workforce  and restricted the local food supply. By 1948, the U.S. Navy had forcibly taken a total of 77 percent of the island of Vieques away from its people and set the stage for an extreme assault on non-human life.

The displaced Viequenses were either sent out of Puerto Rico or squashed into the overcrowded remaining 23 percent of their island. Meanwhile, the Navy allocated  the westernmost portion of the island to the Naval Munitions Support Detachment (NASD), 100 acres of which the Navy still occupies with its Relocatable-Over-the-Horizon Radar system (ROHR). The eastern segment was divided into the Eastern Maneuver Area (EMA), the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility (AFWTF), the Surface Impact Area (SIA), and the Live Impact Area (LIA).  The Navy held its first large-scale joint training exercise, Operation Portrex, on Vieques in March of 1950. It was the biggest war game at the time, involving  “more than 32,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne division and the United States Marine Corps, supported by the Navy and Airforce” all with the purpose of preparing the United States for its part in the Korean War.

Brigadier General Edwin L. Sibert, the assistant director of operations for the Central Intelligence Group (now known as the Central Intelligence Agency) at the time of his participation in Portrex, described how this relatively new “practice of conducting large-scale and realistic maneuvers in the time of peace, incorporating new developments not only in weapons and tactics, but also in intelligence, psychological, and paramilitary devices, provides assurance that the first battles of the next war will at least be fought with the methods of the last maneuvers.” Conducting large-scale and realistic maneuvers has exposed Viequenses to the same conditions as the civilian populations of numerous target countries in U.S. wars of choice and conquest over the course of nearly six decades. These conditions have included being subjected to the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of exploding bombs, gunfire, deployment of chemical weapons, aerial attacks, and ship-to-shore bombardment.

Conventional warfare tactics were accompanied by psychological warfare and conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). International Humanitarian Law defines  the use of sexual violence in conflict as a war crime and can also be considered a crime against humanity in certain contexts. Yet somehow these considerations do not apply to all impacted communities, nor do they ensure that the United States is held accountable for its brutal actions in this regard.

Social scientists have collected testimonies from Viequense women concerning sexually violent conduct of military personnel, who sometimes numbered as many as 100,000 in place with a population of roughly 10,000 inhabitants. One woman related the “legacy of the military occupation of the island [to] how women in the 50s and 60s were confined to their homes by the presence of drunken sailors in the street.” Another woman told how her mother would keep “a machete under her pillow to defend her family in case carousing sailors broke into the house.” There are countless other stories that have been silenced and ignored.

Many of these women have been central to resisting the militarization of Vieques, including through the campaign Justice for Vieques Now . Their demands are straightforward . They have called for demilitarization, including the removal of Relocatable Over-The-Horizon Radar system and Mount Pirata Telecommunications Center. They’ve campaigned for decontamination, involving enclosed detonation of unexploded ordnance to mitigate the ongoing harm to community health from open detonation, They’ve demanded the restoration and return of all lands controlled by the federal government. And they’ve supported a community-directed Master Plan for Sustainable Development of Vieques approved in 2004, in addition to a modern hospital and compensation for health problems related to military activity.

Although the United States paints a so-called feminist face on its twenty-first-century implementation of the Monroe Doctrine, women in Vieques are still fighting for justice and trying to heal their community from the toxic legacy of U.S. foreign policy, while the very government that claims to “defend” their “freedom” ignores their demands. The plight of Vieques is a prime example of why U.S. foreign policy must be critically analyzed, called into question, and restrained by the people of the United States in whose name unspeakable harm is being done–abroad and within their own communities. U.S. citizens should be asking who profits from U.S. interventionism, who develops U.S. foreign policy, whose interests are served and who pays the price, who wins when the very earth that sustains us is contaminated by unnecessary military activity and can’t produce food. After 200 years, the time has come to do away with the colonial law of the past that has plagued our communities in Latin America and the Caribbean for far too long. It’s time for the abolition of the Monroe Doctrine, the Jones Act, and the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act.

Originally published in Foreign Policy in Focus.

Monisha Ríos, PhD, MSW (ella/she/elle/they) is a Puerto Rican psychologist, social worker, and anti-imperialist veteran of the U.S. Army.  Since 2013, she has been investigating the American Psychological Association’s 104-year role in the weaponization and militarization of psychology in service to imperialism. Monisha works to expose the psychological warfare component of U.S.-led hybrid warfare, with a special focus on the narratives used to destabilize peoples’ movements toward liberation from capitalist-imperialist oppression in Latin America, the Caribbean, and beyond. She is the founding director of Centro Solidario de Puerto Rico.

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