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Washington Rhetoric Could Extend Navy's Time In Vieques
By Iván Román | San Juan Bureau
September 8, 2002
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Osama bin Laden's massacre in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania almost called a halt to their plans.
Now it's the specter of an attack against Saddam Hussein that threatens to give migraines to those pushing for the U.S. Navy's exit from Vieques.
The USS Harry S. Truman battle group began a new round of controversial military training on this island/municipality Tuesday. But this time, the dummy bombs that 80 planes and 10 ships fire on white sandy beaches and tropical brush are accompanied by Washington rhetoric that could justify dropping bombs for several more years.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Puerto Rico government's campaign to immediately stop the bombing in Vieques fizzled or softened somewhat to show solidarity with the United States as it embarked on a war in Afghanistan.
Now that President Bush threatens to attack Iraq, activists fear that suspicions about Saddam will give the White House and the Pentagon the reasons they need to delay -- or eliminate altogether -- the May 2003 date the Navy is set to leave Vieques.
"We're worried that the situation with Iraq will unfairly be used as an excuse to keep bombing Vieques," said Jose Paralitici, spokesman for the All of Puerto Rico with Vieques coordinating committee. "As the technology keeps changing and cybernetics are used more and more to replace traditional training, Vieques has become less necessary. And besides, the Navy's departure is a matter of human rights."
Some pro-military lawmakers may bring up current limitations on training in Vieques in coming discussions about Iraq on Capitol Hill. They are still waiting to be briefed on a Navy report on alternatives to Vieques training that may include several sites in Florida. But foreign policy at this moment could justify changes.
"We live in a dangerous world, and the military needs that kind of training, and a major military action overseas heightens the need for that training," said Gary Hoitsma, press secretary for Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Activists have been fighting to get the Navy out of Vieques since April 1999, when two wayward bombs killed a civilian security guard during target practice. In subsequent agreements, May 2003 was determined to be the earliest date the Navy could leave Vieques, allowing ship-to-shore and air-to-ground target practice with dummy bombs until then.
After Sept. 11, some activists and Gov. Sila Calderón's administration, in power since January 2000, temporarily softened their demand for bombing to stop immediately. Congress imposed tougher conditions on a Navy exit, and the governor had no choice but to trust that President Bush will keep his word that the Navy will leave by May 2003.
"I trust that Bush will keep his promise, but I agree that we should keep up the pressure," said Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vilá, the island's sole nonvoting representative in Congress.
As the war in Afghanistan heated up shortly after Sept. 11, Navy Secretary Gordon England denied a request from top Navy brass to allow the use of live fire in Vieques bombing runs. Some fear a similar request could surface again.
But Pentagon officials confirm that May 2003 is still the target date to leave Vieques, where the Navy has had its premier training facilities since World War II. However, to drive home the point, about 30 lawmakers have asked Bush to commit to that promise in writing in an executive order.
The clashes with protesters in these 23 days of military exercises show no signs of letting up. Eight people have been arrested on charges of entering restricted Navy grounds since training began Tuesday, setting off another cycle of protesters parading before federal judges, who more recently have been jailing them for up to a year on misdemeanor trespassing charges. More than 800 people have been arrested since the confrontation began in 1999.
If an attack on Saddam delays the Navy's exit, the opposition to the Navy that has been lessening as May 2003 approaches could rekindle the flames of controversy that had only been smoldering as of late.
"If they don't leave in May 2003, there is going to be a new Puerto Rico, with massive civil disobedience in Vieques and in the United States, and the protests in U.S. embassies around the world will multiply," Paralitici said.