I have been meaning to call attention to a special investigative report done by CNN on the on-going scandal in Vieques, a small island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. You can watch the report here. It is heartbreaking.
Vieques was a proving ground for munitions run by the U.S. Navy for many years. For many years, residents have protested the unusually high cancer rates among the citizens of the island as well as the on-going degradation of one of the most idyllic places on earth, including the best of three bays containing bioluminescent sea organisms that are a wonder to see. In 1999, two events brought the opposition to the Navy to a head. First, a civilian guard, David Rodriguez, was killed when a bomb went astray. The second event followed the first: On May 8, 1999, at the Mass at which he was installed as the new metropolitan archbishop of the island, Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez called upon the Navy to leave the island. That summer and fall, a series of protests followed, including the largest protest march in the island’s history. In 2003, the Navy finally left.
Now, the residual health effects of all those years of bombing are taking their toll. As the CNN report shows, children are getting cancer at an alarming rate. Residents are suing the U.S. government, both to cover the costs of their treatment and to force the government to clean up the form weapons’ testing site.
The issue of Vieques touched a raw nerve in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans take great pride in the natural beauty of their island and did not want to see it destroyed. As well, many Puerto Ricans are mindful, and protective, of the ways their island is itself a nation, with its own culture, not just a U.S. colony. The principal political division on the island is not between Democrats and Republicans but between those who favor statehood, those who advocate keeping the current status as a U.S. commonwealth, and those who favor independence.
The culture of Puerto Rico is a distinctly Catholic culture, which is one reason the Church has been at the forefront of efforts to preserve the national identity of the islanders. There is among many a deep suspicion of the kind of spread eagle capitalism that animates the culture of the States, as well as concern that a miscalculated liberalism might eat away at the traditional role of the family in Puerto Rican life. The family is the center of Puerto Rican culture. When you go to a party of any kind, all the children are there, and all the cousins. Even if it is a late night party, like New Year’s, the small children are present. There are no "kiddie tables" at dinner time. There are very few nursing homes: Puerto Rican families care for their own elderly. Evangelical Protestant denominations are growing on the island but a priest there told me that even the fundamentalists and Pentecostals bring their children to the priest to be baptized. Archbishop Gonzalez has been at the forefront of the effort to defend Puerto Rican culture.
If you have never been to Puerto Rico, do not let the concern about Vieques scare you off. I go every year at the end of February and will be heading down next week. Among other things, every other Saturday, the Church of San Jose in Old San Juan is now open. This church is the second oldest in the Western Hemisphere, begun in 1523, that is, 97 years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth. The Hapsburg coat of arms is on the wall of the nave. The fine stone work of the sanctuary abruptly stops half way down the nave and gives way to less expensive stucco, architecturally marking the time at which King Carlos, a great patron of the Church, turned over his throne to Phillip II, who cut back on ecclesiastical subsidies. The Cathedral down the street holds the remains of Juan Ponce de Leon, governor of Puerto Rico and discoverer of Florida. Old San Juan has a host of beautiful old colonial churches.
I know that in these tough economic times, with the on-going wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the last thing people feel they need is one more issue to worry about. But, if you don’t have the time nor the inclination to call your congressman or senator on behalf of justice for the people in Vieques, say a prayer for them and their cause, and visit the beautiful island of Puerto Rico itself. You will discover not only breathtaking natural beauty but the roots of the Church in the Americas.