Live Fire Heats Up Vieques

by John Marino

November 22, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOThe Navy push to reinstitute live fire training on Vieques will shatter whatever is left of the famous "Vieques 2000", and be seen by residents of the tiny island and their supporters as just another in a long string of broken promises by the military force.

That’s not stopping the Navy, though, which has always wanted to keep its Vieques training base with live fire. It obviously believes it is dealing from a position of strength and has decided now is the time to get what it wants. One of the two pillars of the presidential directives enacted by Bill Clinton in January 2000 is the prohibition against live ammunition on Vieques.

The other, a referendum among Vieques residents to decide the Navy’s future, will likely be killed by Congress before it is set to take place in January.

There was a time when the Navy and its allies backed the vote as the only way to return to the live fire training it said it needed. In those days, Navy allies painted the protest movement as being led by a small group of noisy independence supporters whose real goal was to drive a wedge between Puerto Rico and the United States.

That was before the July referendum, when seven out of 10 Vieques residents asked the Navy to hoist anchor and leave.

Today, the Navy believes it can get back to live fire without going through with an electoral exercise it always knew it would lose. The top officers in the Marine Corps and the Navy have asked the Pentagon to allow for a return to live fire training in Vieques in order to prepare U.S. troops for the war on terrorism. That petition is pending.

While the request is limited to three or four days of training during the next maneuvers slated for January, nobody believes the exception would not permanently alter current training restrictions on Vieques.

What’s the big deal about live fire? Anyone who has ever trespassed on the firing range at Camp Garcia during bombing practice will tell you a dummy bomb will kill you just as quickly as a live bomb.

But the Navy says that live fire training is superior for several reasons -- not the least of which it makes it is easier to tell whether or not a bomb has hit its target.

There’s no doubt that the Navy is dealing from a position of strength. There is a war on, and the U.S. public has rallied behind its troops with a fervor not seen since World War II.

Meanwhile, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have dealt a blow to the Vieques protest movement. The once vocal stateside supporters of the Vieques cause -- from Sen. Hillary Clinton to New York Gov. George Pataki -- have been largely silent on the issue.

The center of Puerto Rico’s PR push on Vieques has been New York City -- and earlier this year the tiny island was a required campaign stop for any Big Apple politician aspiring to office.

For a time, it actually looked as if Puerto Rico, through its association with stateside politicians, would successfully turn the Vieques issue into a national priority.

But since the Twin Towers were felled in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, supporting the military and law enforcement entities involved in the fight against terrorism has taken priority over supporting the struggle of under 10,000 Vieques residents to evict their mighty neighbor.

And without votes in Congress, Puerto Rico is now hard-pressed to rally support over the issue. In fact, "friends" of Vieques appear to be shying away from the issue, perhaps because they don't want to appear dovelike in this time of hawks and be booted from office.

Meanwhile, the protesters, who called a moratorium on civil disobedience during military training following the attacks, have been struggling to find a rhythm in the post Sept. 11 environment.

Of course the Navy request for live fire now could change all that -- since the prohibition against live fire on Vieques is widely supported here. Even New Progressive Party President Carlos Pesquera said this week the Navy does not need to use live ammunition to adequately train its sailors and pilots for battle.

And live fire training would undoubtedly inject energy to the protest movement, which could return it to the heady days of April, when its exploits were splattered across the front pages of U.S. and international newspapers.

The Navy should consider this in asking for live fire since, according to Navy Secretary Gordon England, losing the Vieques training ground before May 1, 2003 to boisterous protests would be "the worst case scenario."

Or perhaps it has and is using the live fire petition as its latest gambit in its battle of wits against the Calderon administration, which appears weakened on the issue and ready to deal. The right has attacked the governor as anti-American, while the left has portrayed her as a Navy pawn. Meanwhile, her lawsuit against the Navy has lost force because of the lack of evidence to support the health claims on which it is based.

And there's certainly much at stake for Puerto Rico. While the Bush administration says it is sticking to plans to withdraw the Navy by May 1, 2003, there’s no guarantee it will happen.

Just ask U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., one of the staunchest supporters of the Vieques cause, who voted for House legislation that would kill the referendum but allow the military to continue training there until the top officers in the Navy and Marine Corps. certify they have found a viable alternative.

The certification requirement is no small bit of legalese. Those are the two guys who are asking for live fire now.

Why would Gutierrez support such a bill? Despite his sentiment over Vieques, where he was twice arrested during protests against military training, he told reporters he was abiding by the wishes of the constituents who elected him.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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