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Vieques Voters Want The Navy To Leave Now


July 30, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

[PHOTO: Alex Quesada/Matrix for The New York Times]

Cheering crowds aside, the Navy said it would resume training on Vieques despite a vote against it.

VIEQUES, P.R. – In a symbolic but emotional victory, residents here voted today by more than two to one in favor of demanding the immediate departure of the United States Navy from this small Puerto Rican island, whose eastern tip has been used for mock invasions, bombing runs and target practice for more than six decades.

Opponents of the Navy garnered 68 percent of the vote in the nonbinding referendum, which drew 80.6 percent of the island's 5,893 registered voters. Thirty percent of the voters favored letting the military stay indefinitely, and 1.7 percent of the voters favored the Navy staying only until 2003.

Gov. Sila María Calderón, who has advocated the Navy's immediate exit and pushed for today's referendum, said tonight that she would send the results of the vote to President Bush and Congressional leaders.

"The people of Vieques made their decision and spoke clearly," she said. "This is the people speaking with a united voice."

["The people of Vieques have a right to peace. Everyone else who has another point of view should respect that voice and unite to make what they want happen," she added.

But pro-Navy supporters said it's not over. Luis Sanchez, head of the Vieques Pro-Navy movement, said the 30 percent who voted Sunday for the Navy to stay and continue bombing exercises using live fire was a good showing, considering the pro-Navy group started campaigning just weeks ago.

Calling Sunday's referendum "invalid," Sanchez is setting his sights on the binding Nov. 6 referendum, approved by Congress. In that one, voters would choose between having the Navy leave after May 2003 or allowing it to stay and train using live fire after that date in exchange for $50 million in economic development aid.]

The victory for the anti-Navy movement was greeted with cheers in the town square as hundreds of residents pumped their fists in the air and hugged one another. Others mixed quick prayers with jubilant cries for the Navy to leave. The church bell tolled and cars blew their horns.

"Let the Navy pack their bags and go right now," shouted Lydia Gerena Corsino. "If they let me on the base, I'll even help them pack. Out with the Navy, Vieques is ours."

But after the results were announced, the Navy said it would continue its training, due to resume on Vieques on Wednesday. "The outcome of this referendum will have no impact on the Navy or our focus," said Lt. Cmdr. Kate Mueller, a Navy spokeswoman in Washington.

The referendum is legally nonbinding, but it is widely seen as an unequivocal message of self-determination to Congress and Mr. Bush. Ultimately, any decision on the Navy's presence here rests with the United States government. But many of the voters who went to the polls today said the referendum was a necessary step.

"Some people said that it did not matter, but we want to send the message of what we think," said Naomi Félix, a teacher who voted for the Navy's immediate withdrawal. "As a people, this has great significance. Washington will know what we want and will pay attention."

President Bush, under heavy political pressure to resolve the Vieques question, has already set the Navy's withdrawal for May 2003, but Governor Calderón had called for today's vote to give Vieques's 9,300 residents a choice they had so far been denied, the option to vote for an immediate and permanent cessation of military training on the island and the immediate departure of the Navy and the return of the Navy's land to Vieques.

The Navy, in a move that angered many here, announced several days ago that it would resume military maneuvers this week no matter the results of the referendum. Damaso Serrano, the mayor of Vieques, said he planned to present Navy commanders with a letter on Monday asking them not to proceed with any exercises.

"We hope the Navy will respond to us," he said. "If they start bombing on Aug. 1, we will make the call we always have for civil disobedience."

In the last three years, since a Puerto Rican security guard, David Sanes, was killed on the firing range by an errant bomb, thousands of protesters have gathered here, in and around the entrance to Camp García, the Navy's main training area, to hold sit-ins and marches and candlelight vigils.

Scores of protesters, including some of the celebrity advocates who have come here in a show of support for the anti-Navy movement, have been arrested for trespassing on the field.

The Rev. Al Sharpton and a host of New York politicians and sympathizers like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the labor leader Dennis Rivera and Jacqueline Jackson, the wife of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, have all been arrested and jailed for trespassing at Camp García.

Senator Kenneth McClintock, a statehood advocate and minority leader of the Puerto Rican Senate, said today that it was unrealistic to expect the Navy to leave immediately. "This vote creates a false expectation among the people," Mr. McClintock said.

The weeks leading up to the vote had been filled with campaigns by both sides, who took to the streets in caravans, posted fliers on lamp posts and cars, and engaged in a battle of flags in Vieques and in San Juan, with Navy supporters planting American flags and anti-Navy groups raising the flags of Puerto Rico and Vieques. Navy supporters said that their opponents had cowed people into siding against the military or keeping quiet.

[Many voters didn't buy the pro-Navy group's attempt to turn Sunday's vote into a referendum on anti-Americanism or rejected their warnings that if the Navy leaves, much of the $14 billion in federal funds Puerto Rico receives will follow. They also set aside claims that "communists," including Cuban President Fidel Castro, were behind the "Peace for Vieques" movement, poised to take over once the Navy left.

"We have nothing against our American culture or the Armed Forces, but this can't happen anymore in my backyard," said Julio Lopez, 35, a third-generation Army veteran who took part in the Panama invasion and the Gulf War, and who voted for the Navy to stop bombing.]

But many voters who cast their lot against the Navy said they only wanted the well-being of their families and community. Navy opponents have long insisted, although the Navy denies it, that the half- century of maneuvers have led to high rates of cancer and other illnesses on Vieques. Medical studies have been inconclusive.

"Two relatives of mine died from cancer," said Patricio Maldonado Caraballo, 80, who voted against the Navy. "We used to have tuberculosis here, not cancer. The pollution from the bombing has bedeviled us."

Those who voted for the Navy's continued presence said they did so as American citizens, out of patriotism and a fear that a rebuke of the Navy would lead to a loss of the federal benefits that Puerto Rico receives as a commonwealth of the United States.

"I have no problem; I'm an American citizen," said Domingo Félix Saldana, a 74-year-old retiree. "I'm a veteran. I have my pension. I have my family. The Navy should stay, but this world is upside down. Who knows what will happen?"

One of the biggest concerns for many who voted against the Navy was the need to revive Vieques's moribund economy. The Navy first took possession of two-thirds of this island in the 1940's when they began using it as a range.

As part of the deal with a former administration, the Navy returned part of the the western end of the island this spring. It has also begun to distribute $100 payments to fishermen whose livelihood is disrupted by the military maneuvers and has announced it will make grants of up to $25,000 available to local businesses.

But such funds are seen as too little and too late for those who have had to leave Vieques to find work on the main island of Puerto Rico, or the neighboring island of Culebra, which itself had been used as a firing range until the 1970's.

"Culebra has accomplished a lot, and they removed the Navy," said William Miró, who works at a factory in Culebra. "They are the example."

Nazario Cruz Viera was guided by a memory he carried as he voted for the Navy to leave immediately: his parents. They defended the island all their lives, Mr. Cruz Viera said, so it was his debt as a son to come out today on his 91st birthday and cast his vote.

"I can tell you the history of this island from beginning to end, and it was better before the Navy came here," he said.

"Before, there were farms and the landowners needed many people to work them. They even gave you a place to live. We had everything. We lacked nothing." He and his parents lived on several farms until the land was sold to the Navy and he moved to town.

"My parents and 12 brothers are all dead," he said, in a voice rich in the tone and vigor of the jíbaros who live off the land.

"This is my duty to my people, my country and my parents."

Wire services contributed to this report.

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