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Global Information Network
Inter Press Service
Groups Ponder Benefits Of Demilitarization
By Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero
July 1, 2002
SAN JUAN, Jul. 1 (IPS) -- The likely departure of the U.S. Army South (USARSO) from this Caribbean island is causing lively debate and speculation about the economic benefits of demilitarization.
In a recent military report made available to the local press, U.S. Army Secretary Thomas White recommends that USARSO, the army component of the U.S. Southern Command (SouthCom), be moved to Fort McPherson in Georgia.
USARSO is now headquartered in Fort Buchanan, in the suburban town of Guaynabo. If it leaves, the Fort could be closed and converted to civilian use.
That possibility excites the peace movement. "The U.S. Army South's departure is good news, and should point towards the long-awaited demilitarization of all Puerto Rico ," said Wanda Colon, coordinator of the San Juan-based Caribbean Justice and Peace Project.
"As believers in a culture of peace, we trust that the Buchanan base, as well as all other Puerto Rican lands under military occupation, will be returned for the use and enjoyment of all Puerto Ricans ," she added.
Because the country is under U.S. control, all military presence in Puerto Rico is American. That presence includes controversial naval maneuvers in the island-town of Vieques . The last three years have seen a prolonged and untiring civil disobedience campaign to make the U.S. Navy leave Vieques .
Closing military bases and converting their facilities to civilian use will be good for the Puerto Rican economy, asserts Hector Pesquera, co-chairman of the Congreso Nacional Hostosiano (CNH), a pro-independence organization.
Pesquera uses the 8,000-acre Roosevelt Roads naval base as an example. Roosevelt Roads, in the town of Ceiba on the eastern tip of the island and within sight of Vieques , is the biggest American naval base outside the continental United States.
Its deep bay, nine docks and long airport runway would present stunning opportunities to develop tourism, according to Pesquera.
"With the Navy's withdrawal from Roosevelt Roads, a whole new universe of opportunities will open up for Ceiba and Puerto Rico ," he says.
And closing Fort Buchanan "would present a magnificent opportunity for housing, so necessary in the San Juan metro area," argues the Hostosiano leader. "It has infrastructure for recreational, sports and educational centers, as well as green areas. We're talking about 700 acres right in the middle of the metropolitan area."
USARSO's stay in Puerto Rico was rather short. It arrived in 1999 after having to leave Panama. The Torrijos-Carter Panama Canal Treaties, signed in the late 1970s, required the United States to remove all military facilities from Panamanian soil by 2000.
It leaves now as part of the reorganization of the armed force's unified commands following last year's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. After Oct. 1 2002, Puerto Rico will come under the jurisdiction of the newly created North American Command (NorthCom).
Northcom's "area of responsibility" will include Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
The other four unified commands are Atlantic, Pacific, Central (which covers the Indian Ocean and parts of Asia) and European.
Economist Jose Alameda says Puerto Ricans need to overcome commonplace notions about the alleged economic benefits of military bases. "The fundamental purpose of military bases is military and not economic, for which reason their effects on the community's economy are lateral, incidental and marginal."
"No community or nation has ever reached superior levels of development through military bases, no matter the number of jobs, income and purchases that they carry out," wrote Alameda in an opinion column recently published in the local press.
The economist referred to four U.S. General Accounting Office studies on downsizing and closures of military bases carried out between 1988 and 1995, which concluded that all communities studied were capable of absorbing the economic losses.
He specifically mentioned California's Merced County. Host to two air bases that closed in recent years, it experienced increases in population and employment, retail sales, home sales and enrolment in community schools as a result of commercial activity at the two facilities after they were converted to civilian use.