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Vieques Controversy Turns Political
Retired Puerto Rican officers foresee irreparable damage
by Raúl Duany
Conflict over decades of the U.S. Navys use of live ammunition at a firing range on Vieques, Puerto Rico, fuels personal and political agendas and underscores the tension over Puerto Ricos political status, according to two retired Puerto Rican U.S. Army general officers.
"It has gotten out of hand," says Félix Santoni, a widely decorated major general who retired in 1995 but was recently recognized by the Association of the United States Army as one of its 2001 Soldiers of the Year. Continued use of the 899-acre weapons range has moved from being a Vieques-Navy problem to being a Puerto Rico-U.S. issue, he observes, "And, unfortunately, we are on the road to irreparable damage."
Some U.S. lawmakers have already publicly threatened to reconsider the $14 billion Puerto Rico receives from the federal government, including $1.2 billion earmarked for education and a $250 million tax reimbursement for Puerto Rican rum sales in the United States. The islands four million residents are U.S. citizens, although they do not vote in federal elections, have no representation in the U.S. Congress, and do not pay federal income tax.
Santoni, who served in the Army for nearly 40 years, has received the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Defense Departments second-highest peacetime award, and has accepted foreign awards from the armies of Guatemala and Venezuela. The retired officer expresses grave concerns over the delicate state of current U.S.-Puerto Rico relations, which spiraled out of control after April 19, 1999, when a Navy jet dropped two errant bombs, killing a Vieques resident. David Sanes, a civilian security guard working for a firm under contract to the Navy, died during military exercises on the weapons range, a restricted area about eight miles from the nearest town.
"I am worried, very worried. There are some misperceptions in the U.S. Congress of whats happening, and this will create a backlash," Santoni says. "We may win Vieques and lose a lot more."
Protestors say the people of Vieques suffer from high levels of cancer and other serious diseases such as Scleroderma, Lupus, thyroid deficiencies and asthma which they attribute to the U.S. Navys acknowledged use of napalm, depleted uranium and other toxic materials on the island. Additionally, protesters accuse the Navy for the socio-economic stagnation of Vieques, its high unemployment rates, poverty, and the destruction, deforestation and contamination of its natural resources
Navy officials have acknowledged that greater efforts could have been made in developing the local economy, but Santoni maintains that military leaders have not been given a genuine opportunity to make amends. "I am not a warmonger, but it has truly not been a level playing field. The press has been loaded and is damaging Puerto Rico by demonizing the Navy, and I cannot accept that," Santoni explains.
Navy supporters complain they have been ignored by the media, which have fueled the controversy by publishing thousands of stories that fault the Navy for Vieques irreversible environmental damage and unmoving socio-economic development, as well as the health problems of the islands 9,300 residents. Even Sanes father publicly accused protesters last year of capitalizing on his sons death to push their political agendas and declared his support for the Navy to remain on Vieques.
Retired U.S. Army Major General Emilio Díaz-Colón has similar concerns and favors resolving the matter through a referendum set for November 6 that would permit Viequenses to choose between allowing live-fire exercises to resume or requiring the Navy to cease all training by 2003. "My understanding is that the government of Puerto Rico entered into an agreement with the government of the United States, and that was to let the people of Vieques decide. We are so close to November, lets wait and let the Viequenses decide," says Díaz-Colón, who began his 32-year Army and Air Force military career as a private and retired last January as the adjutant general of the Puerto Rico National Guard.
"If we want to live in a democracy, we have to be people of law and order. There is an official agreement between governments and I have not heard of any official disagreement with that accord. It is not for me to say, but for the people of Vieques to decide," Díaz-Colón says. "What you have is individuals, many of them not even from Vieques, turning this into a political issue."
Díaz-Colón was responsible for the more than 11,100 citizen- soldiers who lead the nation in recruiting and retention, were called to active duty for service in Desert Storm and Bosnia, and who perform community service, particularly after storms and hurricanes.
"I ask myself if, after they get the Navy out, there will be an agenda to target other military forces on the island," Díaz-Colón says. "Its fine to say we dont want the practices, but when theres a storm, are they also going to say they dont want them?"
For many, the conflict over Vieques has emerged as the ideal vehicle for pushing the issue of Puerto Ricos unresolved political status. "Just as baseball players need to practice with hard baseballs on the field, with real bats and gloves, and not with computers, so do our military forces need to train, with the real equipment they will need and use, whether on Vieques or anywhere else," Díaz-Colón says. Nonetheless, "its also not the same for us to be in the bleachers rather than on the baseball field," he adds, referring to Puerto Ricos lack of representation in the U.S. Congress.
Santoni says, "This issue has highlighted the importance of resolving Puerto Ricos situation with the U.S. While I served as deputy commander for the Second U.S. Army, I had input into decisions that put soldiers in harms way, yet I couldnt vote for the president of the United States." But by pushing the issue in such a confrontational way "nos podemos quedar sin la soga y sin la cabra (meaning we could end up losing)," he warns.
The author is president of the Puerto Rican Professional Association of South Florida, on the Web at www.profesa.org.