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The Hartford Courant
Island In Limbo: Emotions Flare As Puerto Ricans Debate Future Of Naval Bombing Range
By EDMUND H. MAHONY
April 16, 2001
The U.S. Navy has agreed -- reluctantly -- to give up a fabulously valuable piece of Caribbean real estate next month, a step that might finally defuse the nasty political fight over military training on Puerto Rico 's island of Vieques . But as the deadline for the land transfer approaches, nothing much seems to be defusing.
Puerto Rican protesters have run off conciliatory sailors carrying gifts for Viequense children. Radical teachers have threatened to sledgehammer donated Navy pianos.
On the other side of the issue, Navy allies in Congress are using threats to blunt international opposition to the use of what the service calls its most important training ground -- a low sliver of an island where citizens have lived with the pounding of live ordnance for decades.
A committee chairman threatened to kill Vieques ' young tourism industry by turning Navy land there -- two-thirds of the island -- into wildlife sanctuaries. There is even talk of splitting Vieques from Puerto Rico and giving it to the Virgin Islands, a place that presumably looks more favorably on periodic bombardment.
But even as the issue of training with real bombs seems headed for resolution, the Navy complicated things last week when it announced it would resume exercises -- if only with inert ordnance -- as early as April 27. Observers were waiting to see how Puerto Rico 's anti- Navy governor responds.
Puerto Ricans claim their environment and public health are being ruined by ship and air bombardment and they are tired of being powerless to do anything about it. The Pentagon argues Vieques provides irreplaceable training for servicemen preparing for real combat.
Unfortunately for both Viequenses and the Navy, the fight over a tiny Caribbean island is becoming an all too common and hard to resolve problem for the Pentagon.
As it tries to maintain or expand places to train, the Pentagon is colliding with local groups fighting for quality-of-life issues similar to those in dispute on Vieques -- everything from noise pollution to archaeological preservation. Military planners call them "encroachment issues," and they are serious enough to have caught the attention of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"It is a problem that is real," Rumsfeld said during his Senate confirmation hearing. "The United States needs bases. It needs ranges. And it cannot provide the training and the testing that people need before they go into battle unless those kinds of facilities become available."
In Puerto Rico , the dispute always has had a David vs. Goliath aspect. Today, spurred by Puerto Rico 's tiny minority of radical independentistas, protesters use slings to hurl fishing weights at sailors, and Washington issues ominous reminders about the fragility of the local economy. Hard feelings are exacerbated by the island's status as a commonwealth rather than a state with full political representation.
The Navy has promised to start giving up land on Vieques no later than May 1 under an agreement the Clinton administration negotiated last year with Pedro J. Rossello, the former commonwealth governor. The centerpiece of the deal is a November referendum on Vieques on the future of training.
If there were a vote today, polls show the Navy would be chased away. But built into the Clinton-Rossello agreement is a chance for the Navy to buy enough good will on the impoverished island to guarantee its training program.
Under the agreement, the Navy is required to relinquish 8,000 largely undeveloped acres -- roughly the western third of Vieques -- by May 1. The former ammunition storage area is to be split between the municipality of Vieques and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Vieques government is broke, unemployment there is high and health care is almost nonexistent -- which explains language requiring the Navy to begin spending $40 million in infrastructure improvements when it transfers the 8,000 acres. If Vieques ultimately votes in November to allow the Navy to continue training with live ordnance on its land at the east end of the island, the municipality gets another $50 million.
But if voters decide against training -- and if everyone honors the agreement -- the Navy must stop using Vieques by May 1, 2003, and gets to keep its second, $50 million payment. The rest of the service's land, 12,000 uninhabited and undeveloped acres on the island's east end, also goes to Fish and Wildlife.
Political observers believe Clinton's decision to mediate the 60- year old Vieques dispute was recognition of the fast-growing political strength of mainland Puerto Ricans . Not surprisingly, mainland politicians with big Puerto Rican constituencies -- such as New York's Republican Gov. George Pataki --have begun to see merit in the Puerto Rican complaint.
That has prompted the threats from pro-Navy congressmen, a mostly conservative Republican group that sometimes seems as angry with Clinton as it is with Puerto Rico .
Bill Johnson, an aide to James V. Hansen, R-Utah, who has considerable influence over Puerto Rico as chairman of the House Resources Committee, seems to delight in making antagonizing comments about what's called "Paz para Vieques " -- Peace for Vieques . Among other things, he has said his boss will turn the island into a "fish and wildlife sandwich" that can't be developed if the people of Vieques kick out the Navy.
He says the claim that practice bombardment causes health and environmental problems is contrived by radical rabble-rousers in Puerto Rico 's miniscule independence movement. The independentistas, he said, are trying to build support through a populist appeal to nationalism.
"To back up to the beginning of this, the whole issue of Paz para Vieques is completely fabricated to fan the flames of disgruntled nationalism and status issues," Johnson said. "It doesn't have anything to do at all with the health and safety of the people of Vieques ."
The only real issue, he says, is the unique opportunity Vieques presents for the Navy and Marine Corp to practice amphibious invasions under battle conditions. The Navy says Vieques ' natural attributes -- including its distance from commercial air routes -- make it the only adequate training area easily accessible to the East Coast.
"It's the first and only time that the Marines storm the beach, call in live gunfire right over their own heads, call in planes from 10,000 feet to drop bombs right in front of them," Johnson said.
The question of Puerto Rico 's political status lurks just beneath any discussion of Vieques . It is a passionately argued local issue that has split voters evenly between remaining a commonwealth or becoming a state. The independentistas, with only single-digit support among voters, pushed Vieques to the front of the commonwealth's political agenda, but their practical role is symbolic.
Trying to capitalize on Puerto Rican ambivalence over status, congressional critics of the Clinton-Rossell0 agreement have suggested that anti-Navy talk is anti-American and could push the island toward independence -- willingly or otherwise.
Such talk infuriates political figures in San Juan, where polls show strong anti-training sentiment among a majority that transcends political and demographic lines.
Sila Calderon, of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, won Puerto Rico 's governorship in November, most analysts believe, because she called more forcefully than her opponent for the removal of the Navy. Her future could be jeopardized if she doesn't deliver quickly.
Her position on Vieques reflects current political thinking in San Juan: It is unhealthy to support the Clinton-Rossello agreement for the simple reason that it doesn't put an end to naval training quickly enough.
No one disputes that radicals among the Puerto Rican independence movement are behind the more confrontational aspects of anti-Navy protests. But political analysts in San Juan call complaints that Vieques lacks mainstream support another example of the historic tin ear Washington has shown for Puerto Rican grievances running from tax policy to the official language.
There are widespread complaints that, on the Vieques issue and some others, the commonwealth is dictated to like a colony. Yet there is no credible nationalist movement. In fact, analysts say one of the strongest unifying political sentiments in Puerto Rico is a desire to remain associated with the United States.
Jose Garrica-Pico, a political scientist at the University of Puerto Rico , says there is a growing pride in ethnicity on the island, a Puerto Ricanismo . But pride in singer Ricky Martin does not make a movement to "create a sovereign nation based on ethnic identification."
What has Puerto Ricans of all stripes worked up is their inability to prevent the Navy from bombing the waterfront.
"We have an exacerbated ethnic sense, which accrues to the fact that Puerto Rico is a colony, that we have been stumped by the Navy, that nobody pays attention to what Puerto Rico says," Garrica-Pico said. "But when you ask the people how many think that Puerto Rico should become independent to bring peace to Vieques , they will say `No, no, no. We want peace on Vieques , not independence.'"
Daily, the rambunctious Puerto Rican press is filled with articles suggesting local sentiment over Vieques has not cooled since April 1999. That's when civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez died on the Vieques target range after a Marine Corps F-18 mistakenly hit his post with two 500-pound bombs. The latest development in the long- running story has the Calderon government claiming there is medical evidence that vibration from weapons training is causing heart abnormalities in fishermen. The Navy, in turn, commissioned a study that found no such connection.
Even as the deadline for the first transfer of Vieques land approaches, there is no drop-off in the rhetoric coming from both sides.
U.S. Sen. James M. Inhofe, a pro-Navy Republican from Oklahoma, filed more legislation earlier this month. It would block the May 1 land transfer unless the Navy certifies that Puerto Rico is complying with its part of the Clinton-Rossell0 agreement and that nothing -- including protesters -- will block training at least until 2003. The Puerto Rican legislature passed a joint resolution condemning the agreement as doing too little -- and too slowly -- to stop training on Vieques .
President George W. Bush has indicated in meetings with Hispanic politicians that he will let the agreement worked out by his predecessor run its course.
The Navy has promised that it will be a better neighbor if only it is allowed to continue training. Puerto Ricans complain they heard that before. Their complaints are well documented by Pentagon reports, one of which followed an accidental mortar attack on children playing on a Culebra beach.
There is some support for training among some Vieques citizens, although it is difficult to determine how much in the face of reported intimidation from hard-line, anti-Navy demonstrators. It was a local idea to transfer Vieques to the Virgin Islands, clearly visible from Vieques ' round hilltops and spectacular beaches.
But the Navy's time on Vieques seems limited. That begs the question of why there is such emotion over an event that seems increasingly likely.
"When you are a colony, you're not used to winning," said an influential Puerto Rican political figure, who said his career would be jeopardized if he argued in public that the fight with the Navy is over. "When you win, you don't realize you won. If you look at the Clinton-Rossello agreement, Puerto Ricans won. But we don't know how to win. So we have to continue to make a fuss about the bombing today rather than the bombing next year."