Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS – PUERTO RICO: Concern as US Military Steps Up its Presence in Puerto Rico

Carmelo Ruiz

PUERTO RICO, Aug 14 1998 (IPS) - The peace movement and pro- independence organisations are outraged by multinational military maneuvers currently in progress in this Caribbean US territory.

The maneuvers are taking place in Camp Santiago, a United States military base in the south coast town of Salinas.

Participants include the US Army, troops from Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, and the Puerto Rico National Guard.

Despite its name, the PR National Guard is directly controlled by the US Department of Defense.

The stated purpose of this military exercise, which will end on August 22, is to train soldiers for future UN peacekeeping missions.

Landmine detection, controlling refugee movements, and searching civilian vehicles are among the skills that participating soldiers are to be taught.

Opponents of these maneuvers question whether what the soldiers learn will be used only in UN peacekeeping missions.

They are concerned that the South American troops might use their new skills in their own countries.

Local peace organisations have pointed out that the South American militaries involved in these exercises are currently at the center of heated controversies at home.

Such controversies include allegations of impunity by high-ranking officers who committed crimes such as torture and murder of dissidents, during the military dictatorships of the 70’s and 80’s.

The San Juan-based Caribbean Project for Justice and Peace (CPJP) has accused the US Department of Defense of being disrespectful towards the people of Puerto Rico by continuing to use the island’s territory for target practice.

The activist organisation declared that the military maneuvers in Salinas are contrary to the right to peace, endanger the security of the Puerto Rican people and destroy the environment.

“The military maneuvers put area residents at risk,” a CPJP release says.

“They represent an increase in the pollution of our airspace, land and sea, as well as greater contamination because of toxic substances and other dangerous wastes produced by ammunitions, explosives and fuel, to the detriment of the health and quality of life of the people of Salinas and all Puerto Ricans,” it adds.

Legislator Victor Garcia-San Inocencio, of the Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP), has also repudiated the military exercises and made reference to a US Army Southern Command report from September 1997 which claimed to document the whole extent of military activities in Puerto Rico as a result of the US Army South (USARSO) moving here.

The US Department of Defense plans to move USARSO from Panama to Fort Buchanan in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, later this year.

The document that Garcia-San Inocencio refers to makes specific mention of Camp Santiago, but says nothing about any military maneuvers of the kind taking place there right now.

“This situation, in which the US Armed Forces say they’re going to do one thing and then do something totally different, is something they’ve repeatedly done throughout our history,” said the PIP legislator.

He also made reference to the US military’s use of Puerto Rico as an experimental laboratory, giving as an example its testing of toxic defoliants like Agent Orange in the Puerto Rican rainforest.

In a press release, Garcia San-Inocencio expressed doubt as to whether the people of Puerto Rico can ever believe anything the US military says.

The PR National Guard invited local journalists to observe the Salinas maneuvers and at the same time participate by pretending to be international correspondents in a fictitious war.

“These maneuvers are unrelated to USARSO’s relocation to Fort Buchanan,” said Emilio Diaz-Colon, the US military’s highest-ranking representative in Puerto Rico.

He also said he had not heard of Garcia-San Inocencio’s statements.

The independence movement is unequivocal in its condemnation of USARSO’s move to Puerto Rico.

“Every army’s purpose is to wage war,” says Juan Mari-Bras, a leading independence advocate and former head of the PR Socialist Party.

“The US Army South’s presence in Panama was a constant provocation to all of Latin America. The US government wants to turn Puerto Rico into a center of operations for its military activities against Latin America.”

“It is a provocation to place this facility right in the San Juan metropolitan area,” says Julio Muriente, spokesperson for the New Independence Movement.

“Having American soldiers in the metro area is a provocation that could have grave consequences,” he says.

Muriente added that if the US government really favoured ending its colonial domination of Puerto Rico, it would reduce its military presence here.

Manuel Rodriguez-Orellana, PIP secretary for North American Affairs, says that USARSO’s move here is “insulting” and that it reveals the lack of powers that Puerto Rico has under its colonial status.

“This was a unilateral decision,” he claims. “On the one hand the US government claims to favour self-determination for the Puerto Rican people and on the other hand it steps up its military presence here.”

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