Wednesday, March 10, 2010

We owe the residents of the tiny island paradise called Vieques full compensation: The Free Press

This important report was posted on the website of Free Press. I share it with you as a public service in light of the fact that nobody ever thinks about Vieques in the major media.



Paradise lost

by Robert C. Koehler

March 5, 2010

We owe the residents of the tiny island paradise called Vieques full compensation for the illnesses they are suffering courtesy of the U.S. Navy — and we owe them so much more than that.

We owe them a full accounting of what was done to their Manhattan-sized island, about 10 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico (the island is part of Puerto Rico and hence part of the United States) between 1941 and 2003, when it served as the Navy’s premiere weapons testing site. Bombs were dropped and guns were tested on the eastern portion of the island at least 200 days out of the year for 62 years; an estimated 80 million tons of ordnance pummeled the island’s fragile, tropical ecosystem over that time, contaminating soil, water and air, and bequeathing an array of serious health problems — cancer, birth defects, cirrhosis of the liver and much more — to the island’s 10,000 residents.

We owe them — how can I put this? — a commitment to sanity in the realm of national defense. What kind of defense involves the commission of war crimes against our own citizens? We owe them a national conversation about who we are and what we’ve allowed to happen in the name of national security and global dominance.

Vieques, one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever visited — its stunning features include what may be the world’s largest bioluminescent bay (microorganisms in the water glow when disturbed, as by swimmers) — was commandeered by the U.S. military as a throwaway site for weapons testing. The Navy occupied three-quarters of the island until 2003; it finally left following four years of protests, which were ignited when an errant bomb killed a civilian security guard in 1999.

The Navy left but, of course, it didn’t really leave. It left behind heavy metal contaminants (arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, aluminum); unexploded ordnance (18,700 live shells or bombs that the Navy itself has identified); barrels of unknown, likely toxic substances dumped into the ocean or stored on ships that were deliberately sunk; depleted uranium; Agent Orange; napalm; secrets, lies and a legacy of irresponsibility almost beyond comprehension.

But it’s irresponsibility in the name of national security. This implicates all of us. The story of Vieques demonstrates that there’s nothing peaceful about preparing for war.

This small, fragile island — sometimes called Isla Nena (Puerto Rico’s “little sister”) — along with its impoverished residents, were, like the Downwinders of Utah, Nevada and Idaho, whose health was compromised by nuclear testing, collateral damage of the Cold War and all the pretexts for perpetual war readiness that have succeeded it. Vieques is proof of the flawed vision of militarism, which uses up the world.

The Navy is in the process of cleaning up its mess, but this too is controversial and problematic. It has detonated about a third of the unexploded ordnance it has identified, thus continuing not only the nerve-wracking explosions but the spread of contaminants, a problem exacerbated by the island’s east-to-west prevailing winds, which carry the smoke to the populated portion of the island. In addition, the Navy has proposed to burn hundreds of acres of contaminated vegetation on its former bombing range in order to facilitate the detonation process. This proposal is vehemently opposed by the islanders, who fear the wholesale spread of pollutants in the process.

Meanwhile, the Navy continues to deny that the pollution left over from six decades of weapons testing, including secret experimentation with biological and chemical weapons, is a health hazard to the residents of Vieques. Ignoring inconvenient science is, of course, standard procedure for the military.

Nevertheless, “The pervasiveness of the contamination and the poverty of most of the population leaves Viequenses with no way to escape the poisonous substances,” according to “The toxins are all around them in the air they breathe, the water they drink, the soil where they grow crops, and the food they eat. . . . Children on Vieques are 25 percent more likely to die in infancy than those on the main island of Puerto Rico.” There are, the site explains, far higher rates of cancer and other illnesses among the residents, and the island lacks even a clinic, forcing residents to travel for hours by ferry (with unreliable service) and bus to get treatment.

The damage done to this beautiful island can never be fully undone, but perhaps a better future — for all of us — can blossom here. This is the vision of John Eaves, a lawyer whose firm represents, and has filed suits in U.S. District Court on behalf of, 8,500 residents. Though he titled a legal update he recently gave about the island “Paradise Lost,” he told me: “We see (the suits) as an opportunity for a global solution to Vieques.”

The redress the law suits are seeking, he said, include a hospital on the island, better transportation, windmills for economic development and a research center devoted to the study of environmental cleanup — indeed, to the development of a new science of environmental reclamation.

Military-industrial contamination is, of course, a worldwide problem: the nightmare legacy of modern war. How fitting if Vieques should become home to its solution.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Union Members Slain Last Year in Colombia

Hi folks,

This is a disturbing news release on the current situation facing trade unionists in Colombia under the Administration of Alvaro Uribe, sent to me by our friends at Labor Exchange. It is followed by a report on the European Union's concerns about the human rights violations being carried out against trade unionists in Colombia. As talk increases about rekindling free trade talks between the U.S. and Colombia, and Obama talks favorably about such a bilateral trade deal, this information poses serious questions about the "improvements" on the ground for the labor movement. Will the U.S. President do yet another about face from his progressive talk during his long forgotten campaign in 2008?


Union Members Slain Last Year in Colombia

BOGOTA – Forty union members were murdered last year in Colombia as the Andean nation remained the world’s most dangerous country for labor activists, union officials said Thursday in the northwestern city of Medellin.

The figure signifies that “60 percent of the trade unionists killed worldwide are Colombians,” the head of the Human Rights and Solidarity Department of the CUT labor federation, Alberto Vanegas, told Efe.

“This forms part of a systematic policy of violation of human rights, of violation of union rights,” Vanegas said after speaking at the opening of a two-day conference in Medellin on anti-labor violence.

The gathering was organized by the CUT, the National Union School, the Center for Popular Research and Education and the Jose Alvear Restrepo Attorneys Collective.

Roughly half of the 150 attendees are relatives of slain union members, while the remainder includes representatives of human rights groups and U.N. agencies.

More than 2,700 labor activists have been murdered in Colombia since 1986, according to the CUT. The vast majority of those killings have gone unpunished.

“It’s a complete genocide of the union movement,” Vanegas said. “The families of the murdered unionists struggle for truth, justice and reparation.” EFE
The European Union's Parliament sets out concerns over Colombia trade deal


02.02.2010 @ 18:17 CET,

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The European Union's ongoing free trade negotiations
with Colombia featured twice in European Parliament debates last week, with
deputies from across the political spectrum raising serious concerns over
the South American country's human rights record.

The Spanish EU presidency has said it is keen to finalise the deal under its
watch, with the tussle set to escalate over the coming months ahead of a
EU-Latin American summit scheduled to take place in Madrid this May.

Parliament's trade committee is set to call for a debate on the subject at a
March plenary session in Strasbourg, and will urge the European Commission
to launch a formal enquiry into the country's human rights abuses.

A resolution on the EU's long-standing banana dispute with Latin American
countries last December cleared a stumbling block to initialing the
agreement, with commission officials saying the Colombian negotiations are
now "in the final stages."

Under the EU's new Lisbon Treaty rules, the European Parliament gained an
equal footing with member states in ratifying EU trade deals, leaving
deputies keen to use their new powers.

The Greens, the far-left, a majority of socialists and a considerable number
of centre-right MEPs, all harbour strong reservations over the Colombian
accord as it currently stands, potentially scuppering Spanish plans for a
speedy ratification.

Trade unionist murders

Objection to the deal centres primarily round the country's high rate of
murders of trade unionists, accounting for 60 percent of the world total.

Trade unions also accuse the government of President Alvaro Uribe of
collaboration with Colombia's extensive network of right-wing
parliamentaries, and condemn the judiciary's low rate of prosecutions.

According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and
Colombia's principle trade union confederation, the CUT, 39 trade unionists
were murdered in 2007 in the country, with 49 murders in 2008.

Alberto Vanegas, director of human rights at the Central Unitaria de
Trabajadores union told MEPs last week the violence amounted to a "political
genocide of the trade unionist movement," and urged the EU not to sign the
free trade agreement.

Irish centre-right MEP Gay Mitchell said the killings were "unacceptable,"
while British socialist MEP Michael Cashman said his UK Labour Party
colleagues would not support the deal without an investigation. "I see the
fact that we have not signed the agreement as a great way to push for
increased changes," he said.

The US, Canada and Norway have all negotiated bilateral trade deals with
Colombia, only to see them held up in their respective parliaments due to
similar human rights concerns.

Supporters of a trade agreement say greater co-operation with Colombia is
the best way to bring about improvements inside the country however, citing
reports of recent reductions in the number of killings as a further reason.

"I think it would be very unfair, given the progress that has been made on
human rights, not to sign the agreement," said Spanish centre-right MEP Jose
Ignacio Salafranca.


Observers say parliament's new trade powers will also bring greater lobbying
pressure, with left-leaning critics citing Spain's struggling domestic
economy and considerable business interests in Colombia as being behind the
government's haste to secure a deal.

Pointing to potential gains for Spanish companies such as Repsol and
Telefonica, Paul-Emile Dupret, an advisor to the left-wing GUE/NGL group in
the parliament, said the Spanish government was leaning hard on its MEPs.
Others cited Colombia's largely untapped mineral deposits as attracting the
interest of European big business.

"Spanish businesses are pressing MEPs to pursue the Spanish government's
agenda," Tom Kucharz from the Spanish environmental organisation,
Ecologistas en Accion, told this website.

The EU initiated discussions for a region-to-region Association Agreement
containing trade, political dialogue and co-operation aspects in 2007 with
the group of Andean nations - Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.

But a breakdown in negotiations in 2008 led to the EU initiating bilateral
discussions on free trade agreements with Peru and Colombia in early 2009.
Bolivian President Evo Morales subsequently said this "seriously weakened"
the Andean integration process.