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The Providence Journal

Living La Vida Vieques


April 29, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Providence Journal. All Rights Reserved.

The big debate over the island of Vieques - should the U.S. Navy continue testing ordnance there? misses the point.

The question is not whether the Navy should continue refining its drills, or testing explosives, or protecting the people of the United States from attack. Of course it should do so. And Vieques , a tiny speck east of Puerto Rico where the Navy has been conducting military exercises since before World War II, is an ideal location for such exercises. No, the real question is whether that big island west of Vieques , called Puerto Rico , is worth the trouble.

This is one of those contentious subjects that attracts people who are naturally attracted to contentious subjects. Ever since 1999, when a bombing accident killed a local guard on the Navy range, Puerto Rican nationalists have been exploiting the issue, and with considerable success. First, protesters invaded and occupied the range for nearly a year, preventing the Navy from carrying out its duties. Then the Clinton administration was badgered into resuming the tests with nonexplosive devices, giving up some 8,000 acres of Navy land on Vieques , in return for a local referendum on the exercises.

Of course, this characteristic act of appeasement did nothing to appease anyone. Puerto Rico 's new governor, Sila Maria Calderon, is pledged not only to abrogate the Clinton agreement, but has threatened to withdraw local guards from duty, thereby inviting protesters to reoccupy the range. Since then, the issue has served as political flypaper. Former U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark, who has made a career of public solidarity with the likes of Colonel Khadafy, Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah Khomeini, announced his opposition to the resumption of Navy tests. Bobby Kennedy Jr. is planning to join protesters at the site, and asserts that a Dunkirk-type fleet is being assembled. Columnist Mary McGrory has written impassioned columns. And all three major candidates for governor of New York, where Puerto Rican immigrants constitute a voting bloc, have come out solidly against the Navy on Vieques .

The issue came to a climax, of sorts, this past week when Governor Calderon repaired to federal court, seeking to ban the tests. Her argument, for which there is no reliable medical evidence, is that inhabitants of Vieques suffer higher rates of disease than do residents of the main island. She also cited a new Puerto Rican ordinance against noise, which was enacted solely to stop the training. U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler was not impressed: I cannot find that [the naval exercises] would cause irreparable harm to the residents of Vieques , she ruled, and a one-week program of testing was begun.

Protesters briefly occupied a portion of the island, cutting fences and breaching the security zone by boat, and vowed to continue harassing the Navy. Perhaps Mary McGrory will join Bobby Kennedy's flotilla.

I confess that my own thinking on the subject was clarified by a full-page advertisement in The Washington Post, sponsored by Governor Calderon's office. It admonished President Bush, a man of compassion, to stop the naval exercises on Vieques because the health and safety of the island's 9,000 residents are in jeopardy. Puerto Ricans have gladly accepted their share of responsibility for the common defense of the principles of democracy and freedom, argued the ad, .....but to continue to put the health of the people of Vieques in danger, is asking too much.

The advertisement boasted that Puerto Ricans have, per capita ..... traditionally ranked among the highest in volunteering for the U.S. Armed Forces, dying in action, and receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor. What it didn't mention, of course, is that the taxpayers of the United States confer $13 billion annually on Puerto Rico , and that while Puerto Rican citizens cannot vote for president, they are exempt from federal taxes.

That may explain the enthusiasm of the signers of the ad: Singer/ Grammy Award Winner Ricky Martin, Actor/Oscar Winner Benicio del Toro, AMB and FIB Junior Middleweight Champion Tito Trinidad, PGA & Senior Tour Champion Chi Chi Rodriguz, and All Star Baseball Players Carlos Delgado, Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez and Roberto Alomar. Mr. Alomar's principal contribution to baseball, of course, was the act of spitting on an umpire a few years ago.

Can the United States afford to alienate the affections of a commonwealth that has contributed Roberto Alomar and Ricky Martin to the national culture? Is the military security of the United States worth the disaffection of Benicio del Toro? Is Vieques the only place the Navy can test its ordnance? Is Puerto Rico 's current status worth $13 billion? These questions are not easy to answer, and Jennifer Lopez has yet to be heard from.

Philip Terzian, the Journal's associate editor, writes a column from Washington

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