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New York Daily News

War Can't Quash Vieques Battle


December 27, 2001
Copyright © 2001
New York Daily News. All Rights Reserved. 

With new Navy maneuvers scheduled to begin in January, and demonstrators vowing to disrupt them, Vieques is back in the news. It should not come as a surprise.

After all, the situation on the little Puerto Rican island is, if anything, worse now than it was a few months ago when it used to make headlines.

For obvious reasons, when the World Trade Center tragedy took place, Vieques - and many other stories - was not news anymore.

"Which doesn't mean the problems disappeared," says Bronx Democratic Party boss Roberto Ramrez. "They have been going on for 60 years, and they continue to be as serious today as they were before Sept. 11."

Sixty years in which the Navy has been using Vieques for target practice despite the fact that it is home to more than 9,000 U.S. citizens.

In fact, the island's association with the Navy has been disastrous. Beyond bombings and military maneuvers, after six decades of the Navy's presence, 72% of the population lives below the poverty level and 50% is unemployed.

Besides, people on Vieques suffer disproportionately from cancer, cardiovascular diseases and other illnesses.

"The well-being and the safety of the children of Vieques has to be as important in the minds of our leaders as the war on terrorism," adds Ramrez, who last summer served a 40-day jail term for participating in a May 1 protest against the Navy presence in Vieques .

Assemblyman Jos Rivera and Bronx Councilman Adolfo Carrin, the borough president-elect, also served 40 days, while the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was arrested with them, was sentenced to 90 days.

In recent weeks, new controversy has erupted after Navy Operations Chief Adm. Vernon Clark and Marine commander Gen. James Jones requested permission to go back to using live ammunition in the January military exercises.

Since 1999, when protests turned massive after a civilian was killed by a stray bomb, the Vieques training has been limited to dummy bombs and shells, and blank cartridges.

If live bombs were to be used again, Puerto Rican Gov. Sila Caldern wrote in a letter to Navy Secretary Gordon England, it "would inflame passions among protesters and create a very sensitive situation for all concerned." Referendum canceled Even more sensitive is the cancellation by Congress of a referendum adopted last year. It would have allowed Puerto Ricans to vote on whether the Navy would leave Vieques in 2003, or would continue training under terms dictated by the secretary of the Navy, which in all probability would include live fire training.

"It is a matter of lack of democracy and representation," says Vicente Alba, a New York Vieques activist.

To make things more complicated, only last week the Puerto Rican Planning Board denied the Navy permission to conduct the January military exercises. The board based its decision on the fact that the Navy does not comply with environmental protection laws and has damaged the environment in past maneuvers.

Yet, given Puerto Rico 's colonial status, the board's ruling is bound to be ignored.

"We all agree that there has to be a response to terrorism, and we all have to make sacrifices," Ramrez said. "But to somehow try to tie the use of live ammunition to the war is ludicrous."

As environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has pointed out, there is not a beach within 600 miles of Afghanistan.

Not surprisingly, Vieques is back in the news.

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