Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

HEALTH: Puerto Ricans Outraged Over Secret Medical Experiments

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero

SAN JUAN, Oct 21 2002 (IPS) - Puerto Rican activists are outraged by news that local residents were used as guinea pigs in two sets of secret medical experiments.

The first tests were allegedly carried out by a doctor whose cancer research in a local hospital in the 1930s reportedly included injecting unknowing patients with cancer cells.

The second experiments, using biological and chemical weapons, were performed by the U.S. military in the 1960s and 1970s at various locations in the United States and beyond, including the Puerto Rico town of Vieques.

The military’s revelation of those tests more than a week ago has added fuel to local demands that the U.S. Navy leave the island territory.

The U.S. Department of Defense admitted having conducted chemical and biological warfare experiments after complaints of ill health from 55 veterans, who claim to have served as guinea pigs in these tests.

The experiments were performed outdoors, meaning civilians might also have been exposed to harmful chemical and biological agents, say observers. Apart from Vieques, tests were also performed in Alaska, Hawaii, Florida, Canada, the Marshall Islands and the U.K.

In Vieques, the military sprayed trioctyl phosphate on troops at a firing range in May 1969. According to the local Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (CRDV), the substance can harm the skin, eyes and respiratory system, and is known to cause cancer in animals.

Since April 1999, Vieques has been the site of a prolonged and massive civil disobedience campaign against the U.S. Navy presence there.

Well over 1,000 activists have been arrested and imprisoned for trespassing on the firing range, including actor Edward James Olmos, environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr., Reverend Al Sharpton and U.S. Congressman Luis Gutierrez.

The United States invaded Puerto Rico in 1898 and now holds the island as an unincorporated territory; it has neither independence nor statehood, and no voice in the U.S. Congress or in the United Nations.

Roosevelt Roads naval base in the town of Ceiba is the largest U.S. Navy base outside of the territorial United States.

"This new evidence of the grave danger that the Navy and its training manoeuvres pose to the health of our people calls for an epidemiological study,” said Rafael Rivera Castano, a retired epidemiologist in Vieques.

"An executive order from (U.S.) President Bush that guarantees the Navy’s departure as well as environmental cleanup, is more necessary now, in view of this terrifying new information from the Pentagon," said CRDV spokesman Ismael Guadalupe.

Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Anabelle Rodriguez was to hold meetings last week with the government’s lobbyists in Washington, D.C., to discuss the disclosures. "It is a serious and grave matter that will require a profound investigation," Rodriguez told media.

The military tests came to light just as the independence movement began a campaign to persuade the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) to change the name of an award named after a scientist that the movement accuses of conducting unethical medical experiments on Puerto Ricans.

The prize in question, the Cornelius P. Rhoads Scientific Achievement Award, is given yearly to outstanding young cancer researchers. In the 1930s, Rhoads worked in the Puerto Rico Presbyterian Hospital under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation for Medical Research.

"In 1931 (Rhoads) used the Puerto Rican population as guinea pigs, injecting patients with cancer cells without their knowledge", said San Juan doctor Hector Pesquera.

"At least 13 people died as a result of these experiments."

In a letter that was prominently displayed by the local media last week, Rhoads openly bragged about killing Puerto Ricans. "What the island needs is not public health work, but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population," said the letter.

The letter also contained this opinion of Puerto Ricans, "they are beyond doubt the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere".

According to the Internet newsletter ‘CounterPunch’, ”Rhoads went on to head the U.S. Army Biological Weapons division and to serve on the Atomic Energy Commission, where he oversaw radiation experiments on thousands of US citizens”.

In an Oct. 16 letter to the AACR, Washington D.C. attorney Flavio Cumpiano said, "Cornelius P. Rhoads is to Puerto Ricans what Josef Mengele is to Jews".

"Clearly, establishing an award in honour of Dr. Josef Mengele would be a monumental insult to Jews, regardless of Dr. Mengele’s contributions to medicine,", added Cumpiano, who represents the CRDV, a group of Vieques residents.

"Accordingly, regardless of Dr. Rhoads’ contributions in the field of cancer research, your organisation’s establishment of the ‘AACR-Cornelius P. Rhoads Memorial Award’ is either an unfortunate oversight or an egregious insult to the more than 8 million Puerto Ricans."

The AACR has not responded to the letter.

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