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New York Daily News

Democracy Denied In Vieques Uproar


February 27, 2001
Copyright © 2001 New York Daily News. All Rights Reserved.

WITH THE NAVY preparing for another round of bombing exercises at its 60-year-old training range on Vieques, Puerto Rico, Gov. Sila Maria Calderon has been visiting New York and Washington during the past few days to make her case for an immediate Navy pullout.

Calderon was elected the first female governor of the Caribbean commonwealth in November promising an immediate end to military exercises on Vieques.

A tiny island municipality with 9,400 inhabitants, Vieques has Puerto Rico's highest poverty and infant- and cancer-mortality rates. Many island leaders blame the severe public-health problems on decades of exposure to heavy metals and other toxins from the bombing.

A Puerto Rican medical survey of 50 Vieques residents shows that 49 have signs of vibro-acoustic disease - possibly from long-term exposure to the noise of the bombs.

Because of the health questions and the massive opposition in Puerto Rico to the range, Calderon wants to renegotiate an agreement that former President Bill Clinton reached last year with her predecessor.

Under the agreement, the Navy would continue exercises on the Vieques range at least until May 2003, using dummy bombs. Then, it could resume live-fire training if the people of Vieques approve it in a referendum scheduled for November.

Calderon wants to hold the referendum sooner, and she wants its results to be binding immediately. She met with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on Sunday. Her meeting yesterday with President Bush did not touch on Vieques. Tomorrow, she is to meet with Gov. Pataki.

She is not likely to find a warm reception from those around Bush.

Secretary of State Powell, for example, has said publicly that the Vieques range is essential for training U.S. troops.

When asked about Vieques at his confirmation hearings, Rumsfeld said: "Failing to provide adequate live-fire training prior to combat will place our nation in the position of risking needless casualties."

The Vieques issue is not new to Rumsfeld, Powell or Vice President Cheney. All three were important players in the last big battle over Navy exercises in Puerto Rico more than a quarter-century ago.

In 1975, Congress and the White House faced mass protests in Puerto Rico over the Navy's use of another small island, Culebra, for target practice.

Back then, Gerald Ford was President, Rumsfeld was secretary of defense, Cheney was White House chief of staff and Powell was a rising star on the national security staff. The secretary of the Navy was John Warner, who now chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee.

At the time, the Pentagon reluctantly gave up Culebra, but only on condition that exercises on Vieques be expanded.

Now we have a new furor. Puerto Ricans are angry. Thousands have protested. At the Vieques range, hundreds have been arrested.

Many Puerto Ricans believe Congress is disregarding their legitimate concerns over health and safety, the environment and human rights - all in the name of national security.

Bush talked much in the campaign about how the Democrats let military readiness slide.

Pentagon officials already are grumbling that U.S. pilots missed 60% of their targets during the last bombing attack on Iraq.

UNGRATEFUL PUERTO Ricans are to blame, some have suggested. If only those Navy pilots had been allowed to drop live bombs on Vieques, Saddam Hussein would be trembling right now.

This nonsense, that you defend democracy abroad by denying it at home, is what Calderon is trying to dispel.

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