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Associated Press Newswires

U.S. Representative Taylor To Probe Controversy Over Bombing Exercises

August 10, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Associated Press Newswires. All Rights Reserved.

GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) - U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor grew a beard, stayed in a ratty hotel and rented an old broken down car to investigate the controversy over U.S. Navy bombing exercises on a Puerto Rican island.

Taylor, D-Miss., went to the island of Vieques when decades of hard feelings toward the Navy turned into a flashpoint after an off-target bomb killed a local guard at the base two years ago.

Since then, hundreds of protesters have been jailed and more than 400 feet of fence around the bombing range have been cut down.

Taylor's trip to Vieques was over a year and a half ago. He will soon relive the experience.

The Mississippi Congressman will return to the island undercover before Congress reconvenes this fall because of growing hostility there.

President Bush has promised to end training there by 2003, but military leaders haven't signed off on the deal. Protesters say that's not soon enough.

Taylor, a Democratic member of the House Armed Services Committee, believes ending training there is a mistake. He said once the government loses the facility, they won't be able to replace it because of opposition from environmentalists and foreign governments.

"The fairest thing I can say is that Bill Clinton pandered to the Hispanic vote when he started all this, and George W. Bush is pandering to the Hispanic vote by continuing it," said Taylor, a conservative Democrat. "Both of them are jeopardizing national security by doing it."

On his four-day fact-finding trip to Vieques over a year ago, Taylor visited coffee shops early in the morning and listened to locals, he said.

The experience left him convinced that the issue is more about property values than human rights. Developers want to get their hands on 18 miles of pristine beach at a bargain, Taylor says.

Locals want the government to pull up stakes and give back the property. Island residents sold the far east and far west ends of the island to the government 60 years ago, and training for the Atlantic fleet began shortly after.

"They sold their land at 1941 prices," Taylor said. "They would certainly like to get it back for nothing at 2001 prices and turn around and sell it."

Taylor said protesters are well-financed. He described symbolic chapels built on the bombing range with expensive materials.

"Poor fishermen and students don't have $50,000 to build these chapels," he said. "Who has got money and motivation? Developers."

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