On Tuesday, the Vieques Women’s Alliance announced to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that it would accept to negotiate with the U.S. government to obtain reparations for the people of Vieques for the violation of human rights and the damage to health and the environment caused by the use of the island-town as a practice range for military warfare.
The communication came after the IACHR informed them that it admitted their case, filed over 10 years ago, in September 2013. The petition was initiated on behalf of seven women and three men born in Vieques, who narrated how the bombing and contamination produced by the U.S. Navy’s military occupation since 1941 harmed their health, livelihood and work.
Zaida Torres, 69, a member of the Alliance, said in a press conference that the organized community of which she is a member will be willing to negotiate as long as «the United States accepts its responsibility for the human rights violations in Vieques and is willing to make all the necessary reparations to stop the contamination, stop the displacement and address the environmental damage in Vieques.”
«We have been fighting for decades against governments that insist on keeping us [without services] and letting us die. We are living a genocide. That has always been called out: when people do not have the minimum services, it is a genocide because they kill us slowly», expressed Torres, together with her comrades Alexandra Connelly Reyes, 22 years old; Ilandra Guadalupe Maldonado, 25 years old; and Myriam Sobá Peterson, 64 years old.
To support this case, attorney Annette Martínez Orabona, in collaboration with the Legal Assistance Clinic of the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico, presented studies on the prevalence of cancer, which is 30% higher in Vieques than in Puerto Rico. It even doubles in children up to 9 years of age and triples in youth between 10 and 19 years of age. The hypertension rate is 381% higher than in the rest of Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, the mortality rate is higher and deaths from cardiac and respiratory conditions occurred more frequently in periods under military occupation.
Nilo Adams Colón, one of the petitioners, died of cancer in 2022. The other petitioners are Zaida Torres, Wanda Bermudez, Ivis Cintron, Ida Vodofsky, Norma Torres Sanes, Cacimar Zenon, Asuncion Rivera, Ismael Guadalupe and Ilsa Ortiz. Many of them have faced cancer diagnoses or have lost family members -fathers, sisters, uncles, daughters, cousins, nieces, nephews- to the disease.
The Alliance also stated before the IACHR that the presence of heavy metals and contaminants has been detected in hair samples of thousands of Vieques residents.
The activation of the Alliance before the IACHR
Martinez Orabona said that when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the class action lawsuit filed by 7,125 Vieques residents under the Federal Tort Claims Act – a decision that validated the Puerto Rico federal district court’s dismissal – she contacted attorneys Natasha Lyra Ora Bannan of the National Lawyers Guild and Lauren Carasik of the International Human Rights Clinic at Western New England University School of Law in Massachusetts to raise the possibility of going before the IACHR.
The trio of lawyers then contacted the Vieques Women’s Alliance, an organization dedicated to the defense of human rights and the fight against the Navy.
«The issue of how the occupation of the Navy affected women was the central focus of our organization,» said Judith Conde, president of the Alliance, on the importance on shedding light to how the violence threatened life in Vieques from a gender perspective.
«This case is the affirmation, commitment and achievements of a well-placed seed and a trajectory of work that told women: You are capable of taking the lead in your community’s struggle, and it is better if we fight together,» Conde said in an interview.
Martinez Orabona, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said that part of the perspective that they recovered is how the women of Vieques were used as objects of the occupation.
«They talk about having lived through a war, and some people can’t see it if they haven’t lived through it. They lived it as a war where they were particularly affected,» she said, referring to the dispossession of land, the occupation of streets and public spaces «in a crude and violent way».
She also made reference to sexual abuse, and contamination that affects food, health and sexual and reproductive rights that disproportionally impact women. As an example, she mentioned that there is «genetic damage, which can affect the gestation process»; and that there have been cases of spontaneous abortions.
Connelly Reyes, Guadalupe Maldonado and Sobá Peterson read a list of reparations they are requesting from the U.S. government, which is reproduced below.
- Public Acceptance of International Responsibility
- Public apology – The State must acknowledge its responsibility for the contamination and multiple damages caused in Vieques through a public act of acknowledgement of international responsibility.
- Publication of the reparations or the final decision of the Inter-American Commission, declaring the human rights violations, in a newspaper of national circulation, and on the government’s official social networks.
- Cleanup of Contaminated Land
- Compliance with cleanup of contaminated areas, as agreed. Monitoring and community participation in the Navy’s cleanup measures.
- Cleanup system that is effective, non-polluting, and protective of community health.
- Conducting independent scientific studies annually, paid for by the Navy.
- Cleanup. Continue the cleanup obligation until decontamination is certified by an independent organization.
- Access to drinking water
- Agua limpia y autosostenible
- Planta desalinizadora
- Descontaminación de acuíferos para hacerlos potables para el consumo y la agricultura
- Proyectos comunitarios de recolección de lluvia
- Acceso al agua potable para el área de Verde Vieques, Norte y Sur
- Access to land for the community
- Housing Land Trust
- Agricultural land trust
- Ecological and recreational conservation trust
- Access to health services
- Health services, taking into account the social determinants of health
- Emergency room
- Air ambulance
- Reparation for health conditions that are a direct consequence of military practices
- Delivery room
- Infusion center, dialysis, mammography, radiation therapy
- Community mental health services
- Economic Development
- Establish an economic development program aimed at improving the socioeconomic conditions of the native population of Vieques, including seed funds for entrepreneurs
- Scholarships to Vieques students for professions related to health, education and sustainable technologies.
- Reparation Fund
- Victim Compensation Fund (requires analysis of illness-related damages)
- Studies and museum
- Comprehensive studies to know the long term effects of contamination (e.g. Mercury, effects of metal contamination)
- A museum of the memory of the Vieques struggle