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Vieques Says No To Range, And Now So Should Bush
A weekend vote demands an immediate shutdown, so the Navy should get serious about locating a suitable substitute.
July 31, 2001
The Navy may be prepared to take on any opponent in a shooting war, but over the weekend it suffered an crushing defeat in a public relations battle that has been going on for years.
Residents of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques have voted to have the U.S. Navy stop bombing there, a decision President Bush has also made. By a two-thirds margin, the people who live on the 18-mile- long island off Puerto Rico 's northeast coast said they wanted the Navy to cease training there immediately. Bush's proposal was that training continue, with dummy bombs instead of live ammunition, until 2003.
Now the government, which proposed the vote, should abide by it and cease operations there.
That being said, however, the Navy continues to require a training area in which it can practice the combined land-air-sea tactics that are critical to the effectiveness and safety of combined Navy-Marine operations for the Atlantic fleet.
The Pentagon has said that it has searched diligently for such an area and been unable to locate one. Still, even though the bombing site was 9 miles from the nearest inhabitant, shelling on an island where people live ( Vieques has been the site of a target range since 1940) clearly is no longer feasible.
If necessary, the government should purchase a suitable site and pay the inhabitants a sufficient sum of money to make it worth their while to resettle elsewhere.
That may be an expensive solution to the problem, but it will be more expensive in times of conflict if an adequate substitute for Vieques is not found - and found quickly.
Stop Bombing Exercises Soon
August 1, 2001
On Sunday, Vieques voters went to the polls and nearly 70 percent asked the Navy to immediately close its bombing range in their collective back yard. Today, military exercises, using dummy bombs, are set to resume.
It's unrealistic to expect the Navy to pack its bags and sail away from Vieques tomorrow. Sunday's vote on the bombing range's future is non-binding, which means Washington doesn't have to pay any attention to it.
It's not too much to expect some sensitivity from the Defense Department toward Vieques, however, while Sunday's ballots are still warm. These ballots may be legally irrelevant, but they are morally compelling. They were cast by American citizens who call Vieques home. Puerto Ricans don't vote for the president or elect members of Congress, but they have served in every U.S. armed conflict since World War I.
Bombing the 20-mile island at this time is not only insensitive, it is an invitation to trouble. Protests have intensified on Vieques and in the larger island of Puerto Rico since 1999 when a civilian guard was accidentally killed during bombing exercises.
President Bush could defuse a potentially explosive situation. He has called for the Navy to find another premier training site by 2003, but the Navy could stay in Vieques beyond that date if it does not find a suitable alternative, which is what many Puerto Ricans fear will happen. President Ford signed an executive order in 1974 that forced the Navy to halt target bombings in Culebra, Vieques' smaller sister island. Bush should do the same for Vieques. Especially since a congressionally approved binding referendum set for November may not take place.
The Navy's 60-year presence in Vieques is a colonial anachronism. Besides training U.S. troops in Vieques, the Navy leases the site to foreign militaries, earning an estimated $80 million a year. Of this amount, Vieques gets zero. With 9,300 residents, Vieques' unemployment rate is close to 30 percent, and the Navy only contributes 30 jobs. Military training exercises have included the use of depleted uranium and napalm. Complaints about contamination, noise and possible health problems abound.
The preparedness of U.S. troops going into combat is serious business. But World War II-type hit-the-beach training that goes on in Vieques will become obsolete in five to 10 years, deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said this week. The relationship between the United States and its largest territory, Puerto Rico, likely will outlive Vieques' military usefulness.
In the interest of both parties, the Navy should stop bombing Vieques sooner rather than later.
A Little Mas Bombas
August 1, 2001
Some 3,100 residents of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques - a majority, but fewer people than make up the crew of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier - have voted to halt naval training on their little bit of paradise.
Happily, the Pentagon intends to ignore the non-binding weekend referendum and continue exercises on Vieques at least through spring 2003.
Happily, that is, for the young sailors, Marines and naval aviators who need exposure to some form of realistic training prior to extended deployments to the world's trouble spots - including the no-fly zones of Iraq, where Saddam Hussein has just deployed sophisticated new anti-aircraft missiles.
And just as happily for folks who object - for nefarious political purposes - to the presence the Navy's 60-plus-year-old aerial bombing range on Vieques and want to keep the issue alive.
Folks like the ProLibertad Freedom Committee - which, at the moment, is taking a break from its anti- Vieques campaign to agitate on behalf of cop-killers Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier.
They'd all cheer if some undertrained, overanxious naval pilot accidentally bombs a platoon of Marines somewhere, for lack of practice.
And you can bet that the pols who've been grandstanding on the Vieques issue - from Gov. Pataki and the extended Cuomo family to New York City's mayoral wannabes and beyond - will continue to wring every possible vote from the issue, the potential consequences be damned.
Studies have shown that Vieques remains the safest and most strategically sound place to keep East Coast-deployed Navy fighter planes and aircraft carriers fully prepared.
Now a replacement must be found. Maybe two-plus years is sufficient time; maybe not.
But it will take time.
Step Up Vieques Effort
August 1, 2001
Our position: The Navy should do all that it can to hasten its withdrawal from the island.
Residents on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques have spoken loudly and clearly about the U.S. Navy's test range there: A large majority wants it gone immediately. But Sunday's vote -- unlike a referendum planned for November -- wasn't binding. Perhaps that led President George W. Bush to dig in his heels Monday, vowing to stay with a plan to phase out training. That wasn't helpful.
The Navy can't simply vacate Vieques without an alternative that allows it to keep American naval forces trained and ready for combat. That would hurt U.S. national security. But it could step up its efforts to find another training location. That began in earnest last month. The team assigned to make recommendations likely will report back in the spring. It could be necessary to build a new base to replace the Vieques operation. A combination of existing sites, perhaps with modifications, also might work.
That the Navy will leave, though, already has been determined. It recently announced plans to close up shop by 2003. That makes the November referendum essentially a waste of time. It's unlikely that the result in that poll would differ much from that in Sunday's vote.
Although Puerto Ricans had more choices this week than they would have in November, the strong majority against the Navy's staying on in Vieques surely would prevail again, despite some economic incentives that the Navy has dangled. Calling off that referendum would make sense.
In the meantime, the Navy plans to continue using the island under restrictions that limit training and prohibit live ammunition. Actually, any testing worries many Vieques residents.
For now, though, there's no choice. Of course, the situation could change if conclusive studies emerge showing that testing has caused health problems, as some folks assert.
It may well require two years for the Navy to find a replacement, but a stepped-up effort to relocate surely could produce faster results. That would be well worth it, given how politically nasty the Vieques situation has become. The tensions aren't likely to go away.
Could the Navy realistically accelerate its search?
Consider that the brass originally said it couldn't leave Vieques because of the unique training environment it offers. Indeed, few places provide such optimal conditions for simultaneous air, land and sea maneuvers in good weather virtually year-round.
Well, the Navy's capabilities show no risk of falling apart now that a date certain for departing Vieques has been announced.
The Navy also once said that it had to practice using live ammunition on Vieques, but it has been doing just fine with inert bombs.
So it's entirely possible that a new site could be found faster than envisioned. Even if that were to happen in a year or so, that would reduce by a year the inflamed situation on Vieques.
Vieques Mandate Sunday's Vote Against The Bombing Was Unequivocal
August 1, 2001
If the U.S. Navy had any doubts about the unpopularity of its dangerous and disruptive training missions on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, a recent vote on the matter by the island's residents should dispel them.
In a nonbinding referendum , Vieques residents voted in favor of demanding the immediate departure of the U.S. Navy, whose bombing has killed one civilian, disrupted the livelihoods of residents and reportedly led to a decline in health for others. They did so by a 2- to-1 margin, with 80.6 percent of the island's 5,893 registered voters turning out to make their voices heard.
The overall message is clear: Get out!
Six decades of mock invasions, bombing runs and target practice taking place too close to civilians is unacceptable. It would not likely happen if it were done on a portion of, say, Long Island. So it shouldn't be done here, either.
The people want it ended now. Not in 2003, as the Bush administration has said it would, but now.
Instead, the government said it would do no such thing, sticking to its 2003 date with a hard-line flair sent a day after Sunday's vote. It doesn't serve the people of Vieques - U.S. citizens - well. And it doesn't serve the Navy's image very well, either.
It was not responsive enough. As Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y. put it: "It's like me telling you that I'm going to stop beating you in the head with a hammer in two years."
Still, the Navy said it again Monday. And in light of this overwhelming protest vote, it still rings absurd.
The Vieques situation is also remarkable for the way many from outside the island - notably some prominent New Yorkers - have identified the inhumanity of the exercises on the island and worked to draw attention to the controversy through much-publicized protests.
Gov. George E. Pataki voiced his opposition to the administration of fellow Republican President George Bush. The Rev. Al Sharpton is serving an all-too-severe 90-day sentence for protesting on the island. Others arrested include state Assemblyman Jose Rivera, D- N.Y., Councilman Adolfo Carrion Jr. of New York City, Roberto Ramirez, the Bronx Democratic Party chairmen, each serving lesser sentences, and labor leader Dennis Rivera, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the Rev. Jesse Jackson, his wife Jacqueline Jackson and many more.
Vieques Mayor Damaso Serrano said he planned to present Navy commanders with a letter asking them not to proceed with any exercises.
"If they start bombing on Aug. 1, we will make the call we always have for civil disobedience," said Serrano.
The popular vote Sunday ensures that the voices of protect will be heard again and again.
The minority of voters asked about their support of the Navy's continued presence offered specious reasoning. They said they were guided out of patriotism as American citizens, as well as fear that a rebuke of the Navy would lead to a loss of federal benefits that Puerto Rico receives as a commonwealth of the United States.
That's a choice no one should have to make. The danger and disruption of bombing on your land, and health problems that may include cancer, are not proper tradeoffs for federal benefits.
It's time the Navy finally acknowledged this, and the will of the people of Vieques and elsewhere, and stopped the bombing - now.
Shot Across The Bow
August 1, 2001
It's time to listen to the people of Vieques .
For decades, a portion of the tiny island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico , has been used as a bombing range by the U.S. Navy.
Resentment over the Navy's use of Vieques has simmered for years, but escalated in 1999 after a civilian guard was killed by two off- target bombs at the range.
Sunday, nearly 70 percent of the island's 5,900 registered voters cast ballots seeking an immediate halt to bombing on their island. The vote -- in the form of a non-binding resolution -- underscores the anger Puerto Rican officials feel which has arisen because of the Navy's refusal to end bombing runs. Puerto Rico Gov. Sila M. Calderon hopes the vote will have an impact on federal military policy. Puerto Rican officials also plan a media campaign in the United States designed to make Americans aware of the situation.
A referendum has been set by the U.S. government for the November ballot in Puerto Rico . But that ballot question allows islanders only two choices:
`They can either accept a plan proposed by President Bush, which calls for the Navy to use inert bombs while continuing to use the island as a bombing site through 2003; or,
`Islanders can continue to put up with bombing runs indefinitely.
Calderon's non-binding referendum offers up a third option: Cessation of all bombing runs on the island.
While some expected the vote against the bombing range to exceed the 68 percent figure the referendum received, they point out that the U.S. Navy employs a fair number of Puerto Ricans on Vieques . Removing the bombing range is equated with removing jobs.
But fishermen are upset with the continued bombing runs. Fish harvests among island fishermen are down. Most believe the catches will increase when and if the Navy leaves.
Calderon's referendum has no real effect on U.S. policy. But it does send a shot across the Navy's bow. People are tired of their tiny island being used as a bomb site. As American citizens, their voices deserve to be heard.
The Vieques Referendum
August 2, 2001
What's surprising about the results of Sunday's nonbinding referendum on the future of Vieques is not that 68 percent of voters on the Puerto Rican island opted for an immediate end to the Navy's military exercises.
The wonder is that 30 percent wanted the Navy to stay indefinitely in exchange for a $50 million economic development commitment from Washington.
Only 1.7 percent favored the phased withdrawal agreed upon by the Clinton administration and Puerto Rico 's then-Gov. Pedro J. Rossello. Judging from the daily demonstrations opposing the target practice on Vieques and the fiery speeches by island and mainland politicians, one would have thought that the vote for a quick termination of the military maneuvers would have been unanimous. Well, at least 90 percent.
The referendum showed that public opinion in Puerto Rico is as diverse as it is on the mainland. Although a 68 percent majority is decisive, a substantial minority favors the status quo in the Navy's relationship with the U.S. commonwealth.
Not as surprising but impressive is the fact that 80.6 percent of registered voters participated in the referendum. In Puerto Rico , polling stations are usually very busy on Election Day. That show of civic engagement should be exported to the mainland. Voter participation in most states and cities pales by comparison. It would take a miracle, for example, to have an 80 percent turnout in Hartford's municipal election this fall.
Still, the Vieques referendum was important only symbolically. Its results were advisory. An immediate halt to the military exercises is not in the cards. Indeed, the Navy resumed its target practice just a few days after the referendum, rubbing salt in open wounds. The Navy should have waited a few weeks.
Although the future of Vieques was not determined on Sunday, it will be decided in a binding referendum scheduled for Nov. 6. Islanders will have the opportunity to choose between bidding the Navy farewell or having it stay indefinitely and help in the economic development of Vieques .
Meanwhile, the Bush administration has stated that it will order the Navy to leave by May 1, 2003. That would provide sufficient time for the Pentagon to find other sites for military exercises.
The Navy has been practicing on Vieques for 61 years. If the people of the island determine in the November referendum that enough is enough, the honorable thing to do in Washington is to respect the will of voters.
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
CLEAN UP VIEQUES
August 2, 2001
Editor -- An overwhelming majority of voters in Vieques , Puerto Rico -- 68 percent -- voted in a nonbinding referendum for the "immediate and permanent cessation of military training and bombing by the Navy," the departure of the Navy from the island and cleanup and return of land to citizens.
At the center of concerns voiced by people in Vieques about the Navy bombing range are high concentrations of cadmium, lead, mercury, uranium and other contaminants present in the soil, the food chain and the bodies of island residents. Vieques residents have a 26.9 percent higher incidence of cancer than other Puerto Ricans .
President Bush should heed the clearly expressed democratic wishes of local residents and cancel bombing exercises in Vieques . The Navy must be held accountable for the contamination. Congress should fund a full cleanup necessary for the protection of public health.
The Will Of Puerto Ricans Clearly Expressed
August 3, 2001
The plot in the U.S.-Puerto Rico drama thickens. Vieques is now testing whether democracy is truly the fabric of this great nation. Will Congress ignore the will of citizens by placing questionable defense matters above the votes of Puerto Ricans?
Federal officials continue to discount the awesome democratic exercise witnessed last Sunday. Voters expressed their will immediately to end Navy exercises in Vieques.
Consider Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's words before the House Armed Services Committee when he said that the Pentagon has fallen into the trap of preparing for threats that are familiar, even if not likely. This suggests that the Navy's ``crown jewel'' is an ideal but not irreplaceable training facility.
The Navy has mismanaged the Vieques issue and now has a public-affairs nightmare. It evolved from being a Vieques-Navy debacle to a Puerto Rico-U.S. dilemma, and now has spiraled out of control into an imperialism-democracy disgrace.
Under its current Commonwealth status, Puerto Rico is the ``adopted'' family. We are an intrinsic part of the U.S. history that is studied by new immigrants as they prepare to naturalize, ironically to obtain more rights than the second-class citizenship tossed to Puerto Rico residents who have no congressional representation and no vote for the president.
Puerto Ricans understand the importance of national defense, as more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have fought in this nation's wars and conflicts. More than 36,000 patriots are buried in Puerto Rico's National Cemetery, four Puerto Ricans have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and hundreds of Silver and Bronze Stars.
What do we want to tell the world? That our democratic system has double standards? That some votes are worth more than others, depending on who casts them? What do the people of Vieques and Puerto Rico have to do to have their voices heard and their will respected?