Justice for Vieques

By Jim Wallis 2-01-2010

The book of Jeremiah states, "For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?" (Jer. 8:21-22). Separated from Jeremiah by thousands of years and just as many miles, the same question echoes from Vieques' shores.

On Vieques, a small island eight miles from the main island of Puerto Rico, God's children are suffering the effects of exposure to deadly toxins left behind by the Navy after more than six decades of weapons testing on the island. Cancer rates are 30 percent higher on Vieques than the rest of Puerto Rico. Children on Vieques are 25 percent more likely to die in infancy, and rare diseases like neuroblastoma are showing up at rates 400 times higher than the rest of the U.S.

The Navy's bombing exposed the island to an untold number of toxins, including heavy metals, depleted uranium, Agent Orange, and napalm. Now, with every breath of air, drink of water, and bite of food, the people of Vieques are exposed to these toxins that have been directly linked to the diseases plaguing the island. More than 60 percent of the population suffers from heavy metal poisoning. Nursing mothers pass on this poison to their babies, and parents watch helplessly as their children fall sick. Because there are no medical facilities on Vieques, cancer patients must travel hours by ferry and bus to receive their chemotherapy.

If these conditions existed in New York City or St. Louis, the public outcry would be immediate and overwhelming. But because the U.S. citizens being affected are poor, and often speak only Spanish, the government has been able to duck responsibility.

In the face of overwhelming research, government agencies have recently backed down on claims that there was no dangerous pollution on the island. But despite campaign promises to the contrary, this administration has yet to heed the cries for justice. Instead, hiding behind policy technicalities, administration officials continue to deny succor and healing to the sick and dying on Vieques.

Beginning tonight, CNN will air a 2-part prime-time investigative report on the health crisis in Vieques, the efforts by the government to cover it up, and the heart-wrenching stories of some of the families who have been affected. I hope you will watch the story or read the transcript online and then tell your friends, write your Member of Congress, and call the White House.

The gospel of Luke tells the parable of a widow who persisted in demanding justice from a governing official until she prevailed. So too, Jesus tells us, will justice be granted to those who persist in its pursuit. The people of Vieques have persisted long enough; they truly represent the least and last in our society, and they deserve justice.

portrait-jim-wallisJim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, CEO of Sojourners and blogs at www.godspolitics.com.

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