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Vieques Turns Into a Symbol of Discontent


April 29, 2001
Copyright © 2001 NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES – The politicians, celebrities and cameramen had turned in for the night, but Martina Rodríguez and her friends from the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan were in no mood to sleep. They talked politics, shared cold hamburgers and smoked cigarettes as a nearby contingent of police officers, looking bored and sleepy, stood behind barricades.

It was nearly 2 this morning, and despite the exhaustion from a day of protests, Ms. Rodríguez, 19, said she wanted to stay up all night in case there was a skirmish with the police. "We've never felt anything like this before," said Ms. Rodríguez, who said she had been largely apolitical before Vieques became a rallying cry for millions of Puerto Ricans. "This is the Vietnam of my generation. We want to stop the mayhem. We want to make a difference."

The Navy's decision to resume bombing exercises here has galvanized the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, bringing together people of all ideologies and backgrounds who view the vast military firing range as a symbol of everything that is wrong with Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States.

More than 600 people have been arrested since April 1999, when a bombing accident killed a civilian security guard and sparked the rallies and vigils that have become a central theme for Puerto Rican politicians and the news media.

Gov. Sila M. Calderón, who was elected in November, the first woman to hold that post in Puerto Rico, made Vieques one of her top issues, promising to evict the Navy from Vieques.

After years of feeling frustrated by a lack of popular support, Farrique Pesquera, an independence advocate, said he was heartened by the swelling anger among students, housewives, clergymen and Puerto Rican pop stars like Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony and José Feliciano.

"People here have no self-esteem," Mr. Pesquera said, intentionally raising his voice so the police could hear. "They have been brainwashed to think that they can't survive without America, that all our air comes from the north. Struggles like this one will change that."

But the campaign to turn Vieques into a cause célèbre is not universally admired among the 9,400 residents of this 33,000-acre island off the eastern tip of Puerto Rico. While many residents have painted "No Más Bombas" – no more bombs – on their car windows, there is a quiet contingent that resents the protesters, the politicians and the reporters.

The most persistent protesters, the locals point out, are from the Big Island – as Puerto Rico is called by Vieques residents – intellectuals and ideologues who did not care a wisp about Vieques until recently. "These big city guys are just playing with us, using Vieques for their own political end," said Juan Morales, a 56-year-old handyman, as he sipped a beer at a roadside bodega.

Some, like Tito Padro, a waiter, said the demonstrators missed the point when they shouted about the health problems wrought by 60 years of the Navy's dropping ordnance at Camp García, the firing range on the eastern third of Vieques.

"The protesters and politicians say that the Navy has destroyed Vieques, but no one wants to help us deal with our real problems," he said. The real problems, he and others said, are poor roads, an overburdened sewage system, poor schools and an unemployment rate near 50 percent. "The bombing overshadows all our other problems," he said.

And some who live off the island's fledgling tourist trade, many of them Americans, blame the protesters for scaring off business. Burr Vail, for one, said business at his hotel had been growing 20 percent a year until the battle over Vieques began two years ago. Now it is down 20 percent. "The Navy has been a poor neighbor, to be sure, but until recently we managed to co-exist," Mr. Vail said.

Many restaurant and hotel owners say the effect of the bombing has been exaggerated, but a preliminary study by the Puerto Rican government has shown a high incidence of vibroacoustic disease, a rare disorder associated with loud noises. (The bombing range is nine miles from the nearest house.)

Pete Baumgartner, 65, a South Carolina native who owns a gift shop here, described the sound of falling shells as distant thunder, not the heart-stopping explosions he has read about in the newspaper. The exercises, Mr. Baumgartner said, take place a few weeks each year, and before the protests began most tourists barely noticed they were sharing the island with the Navy.

Before the protests began, he said, many of Camp García's beaches – considered the best on Vieques – were unofficially open to the public. These days even fishermen are forbidden from dropping their lobster traps in the restricted zone that extends a half mile from the coast.

As the protesters held their all- night vigil, Mr. Baumgartner and his friends gathered at Bananas, a restaurant down the road, downing beers and grousing about the media circus, the Puerto Rican government's inattention to the island and the sense that life on Vieques will never be the same.

Rick Smith, 52, a security guard, said he had moved here from St. Thomas seven years ago to escape the commercialization that has transformed so many other Caribbean islands. "I love the fact that there's no Burger King, no Hiltons and no Hyatts," Mr. Smith said.

About 4,000 tourists come here each year, but that number is expected to grow if the residents vote in favor of a referendum next November that would evict the Navy by 2003. Longtime residents like Carmen Pérez, 47, believe the Navy's departure would put an end to the bad publicity and free thousands of acres controlled by the United States government. "We need progress," said Mrs. Pérez, who has been unemployed for eight years. "We need more tourists."

But many tourists who take the 20- minute flight from San Juan say large-scale development would be a mistake. Paul Smith, 37, an audio technician from New York, said he found the Navy's presence here insulting but admitted that he liked the unintended result."We wanted to find a place that wasn't superdeveloped, where there isn't a casino and where music isn't piped into the street," he said. "I'm sure it must be awful to live with all that bombing, but I have to admit that if it weren't for the U.S. military, this place would have been ruined long ago."

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