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World View

Bombs and poverty on an American island

Vieques is in the news. The United States, it seems, just can't stop bombing it. It's the best place in the world (maybe the Universe?) for bombing, says the chief of US naval operations, Admiral Jay Johnson. "Vieques is an irreplaceable asset," he claims.

Vieques, which is a 20-mile-long island eight miles east of Puerto Rico, is administratively part of Puerto Rico, and its inhabitants, like the Puerto Ricans, are American citizens although they cannot vote in Presidential elections. In 1941, the US navy appropriated more than two-thirds of the island's 52 square miles, forcing the 9,300 local population to live on a small central strip between the naval bases at the east and west of the island. For almost 60 years, the navy has used Vieques for bomb and bombardment exercises for up to 200 days a year. Up to 12 months ago, only one local civilian had been killed by a missile; and operations were then suspended as protesters occupied beaches on the firing ranges littered with unexploded munitions. Since then, more protesters moved on to other sealed-off bomb sites and beaches, and dared the US authorities to bomb them or arrest them. On Thursday, 4 May, about 160 protesters were removed from the beaches, but were not arrested.

According to the Guardian (5 May),

    "The islanders blame the navy for a cancer rate that is 27 percent higher than on the Puerto Rican mainland, stunted economic development, damage to the environment and to fishing grounds which, other than tourism and service industries, provide the local employment opportunities."

The unemployment rate is 50 percent.

President Clinton has suggested a compromise by which the navy would drop dummy bombs until 2003, and then leave Vieques, in return for US investment of $40 million in the local economy. However, a referendum which many of the islanders consider to be a bribe, has been mooted whereby $50 million of Federal money would be added if the islanders support a return to live bombing.

The United States took possession of Puerto Rico and Vieques in 1898. According to Josué de Castro (Geography of Hunger), "it found a population which, if not exactly swimming in wealth and abundance, was far from the misery and hunger that it suffers in our times" (1952). Until the United States's occupation, 75 percent of the arable land comprised smallholdings of about 12 acres, devoted mainly to subsistence crops. Following the occupation, the United States Military Census Commission noted that "this general ownership of farms has unquestionably had a great influence in producing the contented condition of the people". The main industry, sugar, flourished. But, as de Castro points out: "Profound changes were soon brought about" in Puerto Rico.

The small growers were driven out, and were replaced by great, American-owned plantations; and "through the agency of United States's capital, the sugar industry fell under monopolistic control of a small but powerful group of absentee owners". American corporations also developed tobacco and coffee production—all for export to the American mainland. The Puerto Ricans were no longer able to feed themselves. And the island had to import 60 percent of its food, all of which was expensive, from the United States. Not surprisingly, for decades during the last century, undernourishment was prevalent and living conditions deteriorated. By 1950, the population of Puerto Rico had doubled (people suffering from malnutrition and dietary deficiencies always have high birth-rates). Of course the Americans built roads—and even luxury hotels and the like. Denis Healey MP, recalled that when he was Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 1977, "President Ford invited us all to Puerto Rico . . . we met in a millionaires' holiday camp on a palm fringed beach, and stayed in luxurious bungalows, travelling from one to another in electric buggies" (The Time of My Life).

Meanwhile, between 1945 and 1965, one-third of Puerto Rico's population emigrated to mainland United States; and by 1980, two million Puerto Rican workers lived in America, with around three million remaining on the island, where at least conditions had improved somewhat.

In the early part of the last century, the reformist American Socialist Party, both among Puerto Ricans in New York, where most Puerto Rican immigrants lived and on the island itself, had considerable influence. It popularised trade unionism and, in a somewhat general form, class-struggle politics. In the 1930s, with the decline of the Socialist Party, the political scene came to be dominated by nationalist and Labor parties, together with the leftist People's Democratic Party, in both the mainland and on the island. Puerto Rican nationalists supported an uprising on the island in 1950, when an attempt on President Truman's life was made by members of the Nationalist Party. In the late 1960s, radical groups similar to the Black Panthers emerged; and, later, a Maoist party, the Organisation of Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers, was formed in Chicago and New York. On the island, another reformist and pro-nationalist Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP) was founded in 1971, which had a strong base in the trade union movement. Unfortunately, however, no party as yet has been formed by Puerto Rican workers with the sole object of establishing socialism and rejecting nationalist and reformist programmes.

They have embraced the cul-de-sac of nationalism, to a large extent, because of the repressive and exploitative actions of both American-based corporations and the American state. The use of Vieques Island as a base by the CIA in the 1960s to infiltrate Cuba, and the more recent use of the island for bomb practice, has only exacerbated the situation. As a postscript, it is worth noting that the US navy "often lends Vieques to its allies, including Britain, for bombing exercises" (Guardian, 3 May). How thoughtful!

The US navy resumed bombing on Vieques on 8 May, using non-explosive ordnance. By the middle of May, 225 protesters had been removed from the site.

PETER E NEWELL

Religious fanaticism kills in Uganda

The tragedy that befell Uganda in the month of March this year is worth analysing and talking about. This was in South Western Uganda in the village of Kanungu. Over 500 religious believers, belonging to a sect (cult) called The Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, set themselves ablaze and all perished in the inferno. Worse still, as police continue to search, mass graves of believers of the same cult were found in different places in the homes of the followers' leaders and elsewhere.

The impact of religion on people especially in Africa is that of doom. The principles of religion are all similar and only differ on the surface. First, there is a belief in supernatural power. Second, there are prayers and rituals. And third, there is a belief in life after death.

The belief in supernatural powers, a god and a spirit world arose out of people's lack of understanding of the universe and their own particular limited environment. This was coupled with their own curiosity, desires and needs. Humans have been the creator and inventor of God in their own image. In fact, it's not a case of God creating Man but of Man creating God. God and all gods exist in people's minds only.

The Kanungu incident is a case of religious fanatics whose leaders had predicted the end of the world come December 31 1999; they believed that there was not to be a year 2000 with the old generation but a new generation with they, believers of this cult, going to heaven. So they made their heaven.

Their mass graves at Kangunu, like any other graves, are an indication that there is no life after death. There is only death after life. Their testimony was based on biblical extracts. However, as usual, false testimony always testifies against itself. It is an easy thing to tell a lie but it's difficult to support a lie after it has been told.

By extracting verses from the bible and relying on them in addition to trying to put them into practice, some religious groups have gone as far as destroying fruit trees, having free sex and not accepting family planning methods, refusing medical treatment, and selling their possessions.

Christians marching 'the way of the cross' in Uganda

The bible, which claims to be a holy creation and the foundation for christianity and several other religions, was of course a human creation and there is still a minority today who would accept it word for word. Yet it is inconsistent and self-contradicting. In fact it would stand no favour had it to face a court of law. It's a book of lies. Today numbers of "educated" and "artistic" people are employed to blend truth and lies in whatever proportion they calculate is most effective in misleading the public. The big lie being that people should be contented with the life which the market system imposes on us while waiting for "a paradise life" after this life.

From childhood people are mentally conditioned into religious beliefs, superstitions and the like. And as people sense a lack of control in an increasingly complex and alienating world, they are more susceptible to beliefs in the supernatural whether religion, magic, dreams, creatures from other planets or whatever. People who have religious beliefs replace faith for reason and logic.

We live in a harsh, competitive society where everyone's hand is turned against everyone else. Yet human beings need social contact and companionship. The harsher the reality the more fantastic the solace offered by religion. It is no accident that early christianity spread amongst the slaves of the Roman empire, nor that in Africa and Asia where poverty is so harsh, we have the devout religious zealots.

The religious view sees workers as incapable of solving the problems that confront them. The consolation they offer is one beyond the grave. They believe that human beings should adapt a slavish attitude, be humble, be grateful and not attempt to abolish the ills that afflict them.

We socialists see humans as an animal species that has succeeded in adapting the natural world to meet its needs. We view with wonder and astonishment its magnificent accomplishments in the fields of science, medicine, agriculture and advanced technology. We place our faith not in gods and supernatural forces, but in the intelligence and knowledge of the working class.

The transformation of society will not be brought about by the action of gods, but by real men and women determined to end capitalism and establish socialism.

JUSTUS WEIJAGYE (Uganda)

New times for Syria?

Rarely are constitutions changed so quickly. On 10 June, the corpse of President Hafez al-Assad had hardly cooled when the powers that be in Syria changed the age at which ministers are allowed to hold office from 40 to 34, thus enabling his son Bashar to be named as perhaps the sole presidential candidate in a referendum to be held within 90 days.

As is the norm when a president dies, the condolences and tributes flow in. Whilst Israel newspaper Yedioth Abronoth could announce they were “not too sorry over Assad's death . . . we are happy”, the Western line was that he had been "a great statesman", and whilst Hafez al-Assad was remembered as "the Lion of Damascus", the obstinate stance he maintained in the Middle East peace process and the missed opportunities he notched up over thirty years of autocratic rule were enough to earn himself the title "the Donkey of Damascus".

All things considered, Hassad was no first-rate statesman. Never democratically elected, he came to power during a bloodless coup d'état in 1970, was the leader of a quasi-military dictatorship, with a corrupt Ba'athist political faction—religiously an Alawite minority elite who dominated all aspects of Syrian society—whilst overseeing a parlous command economy and a country noted for internal repression and scant civil rights.

In the perennial game of Middle Eastern politics, Hassad upset as many Arab states as he won friends, whilst siding with both superpowers as needs dictated. As well as Israel, neighbouring Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Turkey came to view Hassad's Syria as a thorn in the side of Middle Eastern peace. His implacable position on the US brokered round of talks resulted in constant hold-ups with the present round of discussions having been on the back burner since January, with Syria demanding land at the foot of Golan and access to Lake Galilee. Whilst Israel might have contemplated such a move, it was widely viewed in Israel to be part of a wider Syrian game plan to get Israel to withdraw beyond the 1967 borders, and in this respect Israel could no more sell the idea of a Golan withdrawal to its people than Hassad could coerce the Alawite elite into accepting they had no hopes of retrieving this strategic gem.

What path Bashar heads down remains to be seen. Up until now he has held no official party post, though he has been delegated policy briefs such as Lebanon and the rooting out of high-ranking corruption. Whilst he can generally depend upon the support of the military, it is probable his anti-corruption drive against those in power—the chief culprits being those loyal to his father—will make him enemies. Studying ophthalmology in Britain before he was called back to Syria to begin his grooming for leadership, he is said to be "modest, considerate and intelligent", keen on new technology and with ideas on reform and political change, such as more representative forms of government, that will undoubtedly sicken Syria's old guard—an elite made up of the security services, the army and the Ba'athist party hierarchy.

And it remains to be seen just how much of his father's baggage Bashar will inherit. Hafez was after all a staunch anti-zionist, still maintaining 35,000 troops in Lebanon—in which he held sway over the guerrilla movement Hizbullah—after the Israeli withdrawal, reluctant to concede Israel an inch, cautious about investing in new civil and military technology or to reform the country's clannish hierarchy.

Bashar, though, comes with the full backing of British Foreign Minister Peter Hain—which perhaps amounts to little, bearing in mind Britain's track record on giving its support to bloodstained dictators for 30 years—and with hopes in Washington that he can make some headway in the Middle East peace process and in time for the US Presidential elections in which the Clinton clique will be aiming to present some foreign policy success to US voters.

Waiting in the wings—though at a distance—is uncle Rifaat, younger brother to Hafez and the former vice-president; the same disgraced vice-president who once ordered the bombardment of the town of Hama (a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood haven) killing 40,000 inhabitants and who attempted a coup d'état when Hafez was ill in 1983. Presently in exile in France with an entourage of 30 bodyguards and threatened with arrest the moment he enters Syria with presidential ambitions, Rifaat has a fortune of $2—$4 billion, looks after 100 companies, controls two newspapers and is therefore more than capable of buying many strategically placed allies. Rifaat maintains that Bashar's ascension to the throne of Syrian power will be "illegal" and many anticipate he will mount some challenge.

Safeguarding interests
The chances are, however, that Bashar will be the sole presidential candidate, if for no other reason than his father's Alawite cronies will close ranks to ease his political ascendancy and safeguard their own interests. And whilst some equate his reformist ambitions with an Israeli/Syrian peace, it does seem unlikely that in the foreseeable future he will advocate the concessions that Middle Eastern peace is claimed to necessitate. If politics is difficult to predict in the West, then it is nigh on impossible to make any forecast as to how events will unfold in this part of the world, where the number of competing factions is only matched by the number of religions, where there are numerous strategic and mineral interests to be fought over and in which the West continue to manoeuvre their pawns as if playing on a gigantic chess board.

No leaders
Of course, as socialists, we side with no leaders or any Middle Eastern faction, taking no sides in their wars over territory; for we have the insight to see where disagreements over resources, such as oil and water, and artificial borders lead and in whose interests such conflicts are waged. Our thoughts lie with the exploited majority of the Middle East—the common folk—who continue to pay the price of power politics, and eagerly await the day when they have the chance, along with their counterparts the world over, to at last vote for themselves and, more, in their own interests, a world devoid of Assads, Saddams and Ayaltollahs and the misery their games bring.

Papillon