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THE MIAMI HERALD
Governor Reaffirms Vow To Halt Vieques Maneuvers
Anti-bombing protests to go on
By NANCY SAN MARTIN
May 2, 2001
VIEQUES, Puerto Rico -- Even as the latest round of military maneuvers concluded Tuesday, Gov. Sila Calderón reaffirmed her commitment to pursue a permanent halt to the U.S. Navy's use of this island as a firing range for heavy weapons, declaring that no compromise could be expected.
``Our contention is that we should stop the bombing, period,'' said Calderón, who has made Vieques a focal point of her 3-month-old administration. ``This has reached a point of no return.''
Her words -- in an interview with The Herald -- seemed to signal that the conflict over the fate of the U.S. Navy's target range will rage on for a lengthy period, threatening to create a wedge between the United States and its Caribbean territory.
As the standard-bearer of the Popular Democratic Party, Calderón is trying to thread a narrow political space -- avidly supporting an issue favored by the relatively few Puerto Ricans who favor independence from the United States, but maintaining the pro-Commonwealth position of her party.
She voiced confidence that the relationship with the United States would not be damaged despite the increasingly shrill, anti-U.S. mainland tone of the demonstrations.
``There is a minority who are very fearful that in some way, I'm damaging the relationship with the United States,'' she said. ``But in a great democracy, there is space for disagreement.''
Although the explosions have stopped for the time being, a determined group of protesters will continue to hold anti-bombing demonstrations. And in hearings slated to begin later this month, attorneys from the United States and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico will each offer arguments over whether training exercises should continue or cease permanently.
The staged explosions, the military says, are essential to maintaining the readiness levels of U.S. forces. Puerto Rico contends they come with too heavy a price: the lives of the people of Vieques.
Rear Adm. Kevin P. Green, commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command, said Puerto Rico ``shares our responsibility for defending the nation.''
The training range is crucial because it provides the Navy and Marines with the ability to engage in land, air and sea exercises that closely simulate combat.
``If this training weren't so important, we wouldn't need to do it,'' Green said.
While leaders haggle, protesters will continue to work on swaying public sentiment across Puerto Rico and the United States. But Calderón is also placing her hopes on medical studies that could prove claims made by Puerto Rican researchers of seemingly higher rates of medical problems caused by the military maneuvers.
These include cancer, cardiovascular ailments, skin disease, asthma and other respiratory problems.
Calderon acknowledged that scientific proof linking the maladies to the bombing is not currently available, but said: ``We know there is a problem. We're on our way to prove it.''
Although most residents of Vieques seem to want the Navy out, there is widespread division over the issue among Puerto Ricans throughout the Commonwealth.
Many fear that if the Navy can no longer use the target range in Vieques, it will pull other military operations out of Puerto Rico, a staggering blow to the island's economy.
Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, to which the target range belongs, is the largest Navy base in the Caribbean. Established 60 years ago, the base employs about 2,500 civilians and contributes an estimated $300 million to the local economy.
``If the Navy leaves, this whole area will collapse,'' said Marta Negrón Gómez, who lives in Naguabo.
``We are very good at asking the United States for help, but when we have to give a little we don't want to,'' said Pedro Sayán, 57, of Culebra.
``You can't look at this issue through the heart, you have to be realistic,'' he said. ''The reality is that Puerto Rico has been able to progress economically because of the United States.''
THORNY ISSUE SOLVED
Amid the raucous debate, at least one thorny issue has been resolved.
The Navy has relinquished 8,148 acres of land on the western side of Vieques. The land transfer, which took effect last Wednesday, was part of an agreement reached last year between the White House and Puerto Rico.
The agreement also required the military to use non-explosive ammunition for its exercises and established a referendum, to be held in November, in which Vieques residents will vote on whether the Navy's target range should remain.
If the Navy is voted out of Vieques, it must leave by May 2003. If it is allowed to stay, it can resume using live ammunition.
The Vieques municipality of 9,300 also would have access to $50 million to be used for economic development, housing and infrastructure.
But Calderon remains confident that Puerto Rico will prevail in its quest to shut down the target range.
Besides the lawsuit filed by her administration, Calderon also has matched the Navy's $50 million pledge for Vieques so that access to funds does not become an issue when islanders vote on the Navy referendum in November.