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May 1, 2001
Much has been said and written concerning the Vieques Island naval controversy, which Mary McGrory writes about in her April 26 column. But what has been conspicuously left out of this debate is the root of the problem, namely the unresolved nature of Puerto Rico 's political status.
The impasse between the government of Puerto Rico and the Navy has been a public relations nightmare for the people of Puerto Rico . It has created the perception that the nearly 4 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico are an unpatriotic bunch. But what about the people who live near the Dahlgren Navy base in Virginia? They have complained about noise levels, damage to their homes and other factors. Are they unpatriotic as well?
Until Puerto Ricans cease to be disenfranchised American citizens and Puerto Rico becomes either a state or an independent republic, confrontations over issues like Vieques will continue to occur.
JOSE E. APONTE
The writer is executive director of Citizens Educational Foundation-US, a nonprofit organization that promotes self-determination for Puerto Rico.
May 1, 2001
Along with inert bombs, passions are running high over Vieques, a tiny Puerto Rican island that has been home to Navy war games for more than half a century.
Military exercises started in Vieques on Friday, along with a civil disobedience campaign aimed at stopping it. Dozens of demonstrators have been arrested, including a U.S. congressman, a songwriter and a parish priest. The mayor of Vieques is on the bombing range refusing to budge, while Puerto Rico's Gov. Sila Calderon has called on Pope John Paul II to intervene to halt the bombings.
These exercises are legal. But imposing them on a civilian population at this time is politically unwise. Vieques isn't a passionate issue only in Puerto Rico. South and central Florida have large Puerto Rican communities that are sensitive to this issue. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists co-sponsored a conference at the Sun-Sentinel last Friday on the environmental impact of war games on Vieques. People from as far away as Orlando showed up, some wearing "Peace for Vieques" T-shirts.
Passions over the bombing maneuvers run high because Puerto Rico has always been powerless to do anything about it. A U.S. commonwealth since 1952, Puerto Rico has no voting representation in Congress and its residents, who are U.S. citizens, do not elect the president. Puerto Rico does not pay federal taxes, but it has a high rate of service in the military, and Puerto Ricans have served in every U.S. war since World War I.
Joint air, sea and land training in Vieques helps keep the world's most powerful Navy strong. But national security needs to be balanced against relations with Puerto Rico, which the United States acquired through the 1898 Spanish-American War.
Vieques has paid its dues to the nation's defense for 60 years. Its 9,400 residents deserve a break. They shouldn't have to live next to a bombing range forever. These exercises contribute to Vieques' high unemployment rate, while health experts are trying to figure out what's causing an above-average cancer rate. Safety concerns exploded after two wayward bombs killed a civilian guard two years ago.
The Navy says there is no other training site like Vieques in the western Atlantic, but the Pentagon hasn't looked very hard for one. The Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis says it would welcome Navy exercises. There may be other countries willing to do the same.
A referendum among Vieques' 9,400 residents scheduled for November would be the fairest way to solve the bombing dispute. Voters are to decide whether they want the Navy to stay and practice with live ammunition or pull out by 2003.
Until the vote, the Defense Department could show more patience. Health studies on cancer and heart problems have not concluded. The Bush administration could show good will by halting future Navy exercises until Vieques voters decide the bombing range's future.