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EDITORIALS - Vieques
May 2, 2001
PROTESTERS ON THE PUERTO RICAN Island of Vieques decry the Navy military maneuvers that they say threaten the health and environment of the poor people who live there.
But more is at stake. By resuming exercises, the Navy risks fueling anti-U.S. sentiment in Puerto Rico . That could result in the loss of the military base entirely.
On Saturday, over Puerto Rican government objections, the Navy began a multiday series of military drills at Camp Garcia on Vieques . Yet in February, the Bush administration had assured Puerto Rican Gov. Sila M. Calderon that it would not resume testing until the Department of Health and Human Services reviewed a study that showed that the exercises caused adverse health effects. That review hasn't been done.
The Bush administration should have insisted that the Navy maneuvers not begin until after the health study was reviewed. And then it should have expedited the review. That response would have showed much-needed sensitivity and also avoided escalating tensions.
Protests of the exercises have intensified since a Navy test- bombing error killed a civilian security guard two years ago. As part of a U.S. agreement resulting from that incident, Puerto Rico will hold a November referendum on whether military exercises should continue. A "no" vote would mean the base would close by May 1, 2003. A "yes" vote would mean more federal aid.
The Navy adamantly maintains that Camp Garcia is crucial for a type of military instruction that can't be duplicated elsewhere. Yet it arrogantly pushed for the maneuvers only months before the referendum. It doesn't help that many Puerto Ricans - but not all - see the 60-year-old Navy testing site as a prime example of the United States usurping their rights to determine the island's destiny.
May 3, 2001
The U.S. Navy resumed military training exercises off the small Caribbean island of Vieques last weekend despite protest demonstrations on Vieques itself and in Puerto Rico, which otherwise administers the small island to its leeward side. While that was a legally permissible decision, it is one that the Pentagon should reconsider.
The Navy had the law on its side because a federal judge in Washington had previously declined to issue a temporary restraining order that had been requested by the Puerto Rican government. Puerto Rican officials have argued that the health of the island's 9,400 inhabitants suffers from the heavy bombing and shelling that occur on the island's military reservations during naval exercises. They cite high rates of cancer and heart disease among Vieques residents as their chief cause of concern.
Displaying remarkable political insensitivity, the Navy proceeded with last weekend's exercises before it had the results of an evaluation of the Puerto Rican government's claims by the Department of Health and Human Services. The Navy says the war games on Vieques are needed to ensure U.S. troops receive adequate training--training that may help them survive in battle. But how much harm to training would have been caused by waiting to renew bombing and shelling that may yet be shown to have an adverse affect on residents of the island? At the very least, a continued suspension of operations until the public health questions were answered might have gained the Navy some added public support in Puerto Rico .
In November, there will be a plebiscite on Vieques in which residents of the island itself will decide whether to keep the Navy and its money on the island or ask the Navy to leave. It will not be an easy choice because, if the Navy leaves, it is difficult to envision people finding new jobs on an island where unemployment already approaches 60%.
So it is not by any means a sure thing that the Navy will be asked to leave Vieques . In the meantime, it would be just plain good politics for the Navy, and the Defense Department as a whole, to try to be as good a neighbor as possible to the residents of the island. A suspension of war games would be a good way to start.