|This is not Wonderland, Alice This is Vieques!
April 19th will mark the third anniversary of the death of David Sanes Rodriguez, the U.S. Navy employee killed by an errant bomb during a U.S. Navy training exercise on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. In the 36 months since that accident, politicians on the island and mainland have been whirling like dervishes. The shockwaves from that accidental explosion quickly surged over the Puerto Rican general public, each of its office holders and candidates, The Pentagon, the Congress of the United States and even to the past and current occupants of the White Houses West Wing, William Jefferson Clinton and George W. Bush.
In spite of proposals, promises, posturing, protesting and pontificating, much remains the same on the U.S. Navys training facility offshore Puerto Ricos main island. The Navy is still pounding. There is dismay among those who thought that the protests and civil disobedience would force the U.S. Navy to cease the training of its fleet. As this issue of the Herald opens on the web, the trainees are wrapping up another of the many exercises held since the accident, although their ammunition is now inert. By the end of his term in office, Governor Pedro Rossello had reached an agreement with the outgoing U.S. President Bill Clinton that no live ammunition would be used in training until a referendum by Vieques residents would decide between a total Navy pullout by May of 2003 or the resumption of training with live ammo.
The newly elected Governor, Sila Calderon, vigorously denounced the accord, both in her election campaign and after she had assumed office. She called for "renegotiations" with President Bush and introduced law suits against the Navy, alleging environmental and health threats to Vieques and its inhabitants. So far, the courts have given her no relief. She praised the stateside migrations of protesters to Vieques, most hailing from electoral districts with large numbers of Puerto Rican voters. Her rhetoric was strident. Newly into her term as Governor she proclaimed, "The naval exercises on one side of Vieques and the bombings on the other have become intolerable for the inhabitants and must cease immediately." President Bush seemed to agree. Referring to the American citizens of Puerto Rico as "our friends and neighbors," he proclaimed that, "the Navy ought to find somewhere else to conduct its exercises, for a lot of reasons."
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on Washington and New York dramatically changed the Vieques debate. Americas war on terrorism and the perceived urgency for realistic training of forces en route to Central Asia stalled most of the momentum of anti-Navy forces in Puerto Rico. American flags were once again displayed in the pro-statehood barrios of the island. Governor Calderon cut down the copy and lowered the volume of her anti-Navy diatribes, leaving the left wing of her party (PDP) and most of the independence-minded Puerto Ricans howling in protest.
After 9/11, President Bush no longer spoke publicly about a Navy pull-out from Vieques, in fact he signed into law a bill that canceled the referendum on Vieques and required the Navy to find a suitable replacement to Vieques before abandoning it in May, 2003. Before the ink dried on the Navys reprieve, Gov. Calderon met with the President. She returned to Puerto Rico jubilant from the visit. "Looking me in the eye," she said of the President, "he told me that his commitment to halt the military practices on Vieques by or before 2003 stood firm, and that he would keep his word." There it stands. The Navy may or may not find a replacement for its training facility that is "equal or better" than Vieques, as the bills language requires. The President may or may not have given "his word" and if he did, may or may not keep if he is prevented by law or if national security is at stake.
Arguably, Gov. Calderon is in the identical position as was her predecessor three years ago when the accident occurred. What is unquestioned is that Puerto Ricos status as a territory has not given it leverage to negotiate better terms from the Navy. If she were Governor of a State of the Union Gov. Calderon could parley the strength of 2.5 million voters and a large congressional delegation. As President of an Independent nation a "President Calderon" would have the language of a bi-lateral treaty to enforce her demands. Now, as the Governor of an Unincorporated Territory, with a non-voting Resident Commissioner as her only voice in Congress, Sila Calderon must depend on a wink and a nod from the U.S. President to help her achieve her dream of a Navy -free Vieques.
Meanwhile, on the third anniversary of his untimely death, Puerto Rican singers and poets plan to eulogize David Sanes Rodriguez at sunrise on Vieques. Depending on Navy logistics, their choruses may be accompanied by the thumping of inert Navy ordinance at its nearby training facility. Organizers say that no political speeches will be allowed. That may be the only new development seen on Vieques in a long time.