South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Work Toward Solving The Problem
March 3, 2001
A decision to delay a military training exercise scheduled for this month on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques is a show of good faith. It may contribute toward a permanent solution to a vexing problem between the United States and its largest territory.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made the decision after meeting earlier this week with Puerto Rico's Gov. Sila Calderon. The governor asked for more time to review a study that links noise from bombing exercises to heart disease among Vieques' 9,600 residents. Her request was granted.
It would be the appropriate time to urge both sides to work in good faith toward solving the Navy-Vieques problem. Except that Washington holds the real power and Puerto Ricans have the option of submitting or protesting.
An agreement reached between former President Bill Clinton and former Gov. Pedro Rossello last year calls for a referendum to be held on Nov. 6 on the future of the bombing range. Voters in Vieques, a 20-mile satellite island off Puerto Rico, would decide if the Navy can stay permanently and practice with live ammunition or must leave by 2003. Calderon, however, dislikes the agreement and has asked for an immediate pullout. In doing so, she is echoing public sentiment in Vieques and in the rest of Puerto Rico.
A 1983 memorandum of understanding between the Navy and Puerto Rico promised a series of reforms and economic development for Vieques, which never materialized. Simply put, many Vieques residents do not believe the Navy has any intentions of leaving or becoming a good neighbor. When two errant Navy bombs accidentally killed security guard David Sanes Rodriguez on April 19, 1999, Puerto Rico erupted in protest. More remarkably, it was the first time the island's political parties and institutions united behind a common goal. That objective was to get the Navy, which has owned most of Vieques for 60 years, to close the bombing range.
Vieques is the Atlantic fleet's premier training site. But it is not the only place in the world where the Navy can carry out joint land, sea and air exercises. Another site should be found within a reasonable time.
The need to balance national security with the rights of U.S. citizens in Vieques is a tough act. It is tougher because these citizens do not vote for the president or elect members of Congress. In short, they lack any real political power.
The underlying problem is Puerto Rico's colonial status, which remains unchanged after more than a century. This is the real challenge that needs addressing.