Activists protest US Navy radar project
March 15, 1999

By Carmelo Ruiz

Puerto Rico - A delegation of six environmental and community activists from Puerto Rico visited Washington DC from March 8 to 12 to lobby the United States government against a proposed radar complex to be built by the United States Navy in the towns of Juana Diaz and Vieques.

The proposed radar, known as the Relocatable Over The Horizon Radar (ROTHR), will allegedly help the US authorities interdict drug airplanes flying over the Caribbean sea.

The ROTHR will consist of two facilities. One will be in Fort Allen, in the southern town of Juana Díaz. This US military base was used as a concentration camp for Haitian refugees in 1980.

This component of the radar was originally going to be built in the town of Lajas, in Puerto Rico’s southwest. However, a massive protest campaign and a march by sixty thousand peace activists and pro-independence nationalists in October 1995 forced the US government to consider another location.

But citizens in Juana Diaz are already organising against the ROTHR construction in Fort Allen. The town government held public hearing to discuss the controversial matter in March of last year. Of the dozens of citizens that testified at that hearing, the only one to speak in favor of the radar was a US Navy spokesman.

The other facility will be in the island-town of Vieques, which is to the east of the main island of Puerto Rico and some forty kilometres west of St. Thomas. Vieques’s inhabitants are for the most part unfriendly towards the US Navy, since it already occupies over two thirds of the island.

According to ROTHR’s opponents, the radar system will be ineffective, since it was designed to detect Soviet bombers, not small airplanes.

Delegation member Neftali Garcia, a chemist by profession, referred to studies of the US General Accounting Office and the Drug Enforcement Administration that found that most illegal drugs enter the United States by land from Mexico or through ships. Based on these studies, he argues, a system that can only detect airplanes would only make at best a marginal contribution to the war against drugs.

Garcia, who unsuccessfully ran for the Puerto Rico senate as an independent environmentalist candidate in 1992 and 1996, adds that the ROTHR cannot detect airplanes flying under 500 feet over sea level, which would make it useless against low-flying drug planes.

The delegation’s members, which included citizens from both Juana Diaz and Vieques, cited a 1994 RAND Corporation study that concluded that the most effective use of taxpayers’ money to combat drugs are prevention through medication and treatment of drug addicts.

The ROTHR’s opponents are also certain that the electromagnetic radiation to be generated by its two facilities will have detrimental health effects on people living near them, in spite of US government reassurances to the contrary. Of particular concern to them is the Vieques installation, since it will be built some 500 metres from a populated area.

They also point to the corruption record of the corporation contracted to run the radar system: Raytheon. This US-based corporation is embroiled in a bribery scandal in Brasil. According to reports in the Brasilian press, Raytheon bribed government officials in order to secure a contract to build a radar system to monitor the Amazon basin known as SIVAM.

This corporation has also been found guilty of contractor fraud by the US government on more than one occasion.

The Raytheon connection has led ROTHR opponents to suspect that it might be somehow connected to the US-military’s High Frequency Advanced Auroral Research Project (HAARP) in Alaska. This secretive, high-technology endeavor aims to alter the ionosphere’s composition through powerful blasts of microwave radiation. Not surprisingly environmentalists and peace activists in Alaska are inequivocally opposed to this project.

According to reports in the American press, in particular one in the September 1995 issue of Popular Science, the HAARP can potentially be used as an X-ray to monitor the Earth’s interior, and can also modify weather.

HAARP, the proposed ROTHR and the atmospheric experiments currently being carried out by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) over Puerto Rico’s skies are part of an effort by the United States military to develop a ‘cyber warfare’ capability, according to Garcia.

The movement in Vieques island against the ROTHR builds on five decades of anti-Navy organising and activism. Shortly after the United States entered World War Two, its war navy forcibly took over most of Vieques, leaving its population (now numbering 8,000) sandwiched between three military bases. The US military uses Vieques as a firing range, submitting it to constant bombardment by missiles and cannon shells.

"Vieques is the best example of destruction and environmental injustice in the Americas. The Navy uses Vieques for bombing activites of US, European and Latin American military forces. The US Navy and other countries’ military forces have destroyed coral reefs, thalasia beds, lagoons, mangroves, coconut groves, beaches, endangered species, fish and other marine organisms", declared the delegation in a press release issued at a press conference in Washington DC on March 11.

The cancer rate in Vieques is 52 percent higher than the Puerto Rican average, according to Garcia.

ROTHR opponents sent a letter to US president Clinton in which they complained that his 1994 executive order on environmental justice is being flagrantly violated by the US Navy in Vieques. The letter has gone so far unanswered.

During their visit to Washington, the delegates visited the White House and the Congress.

White House official Jeffrey Farrow, who heads an interagency committee on Puerto Rico, met with them and agreed that their concerns about the health effects of the radar’s electromagnetic radiation are legitimate.

According to delegation member Juan Rosario, resident of Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico-born congressman Jose Serrano was unconditional in his support for the delegates’s anti-ROTHR efforts. He personally assured them that he’ll do everything in his power to stop the radar’s construction until all the environmental concerns are properly addressed.

The delegates also met with aides of congressional representatives Luis Gutierrez and Nydia Velazquez, both born in Puerto Rico.

All three Congress members have promised to petition president Clinton to stop the ROTHR project.

The delegates received technical and moral support from the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a US-based peace organisation. FOR sent a multinational delegation last month to Puerto Rico to investigate the social and ecological impacts of US military activities here.

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