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Activists, Politicians Celebrate Triumph In Navy's Announcement Of Training Sites To Replace Vieques…Vieques Residents Still Doubt Navy Will Leave… Hundreds Finish March Against Last ExercisesPuerto Rican Groups To Keep Up Vieques Protests

Activists, Politicians Celebrate Triumph In Navy's Announcement Of Training Sites To Replace Vieques

January 10, 2003
Copyright © 2002 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - After years of pressing for a halt to U.S. Navy bombing exercises on Vieques , Puerto Rican leaders and activists said they had triumphed Friday following the Navy's announcement of alternative training sites.

The U.S. Navy will expand its use of bombing ranges in Florida and elsewhere on the U.S. mainland, defense officials said Friday. The announcement brought a long-sought guarantee that the Navy would close the firing range in May.

Some opponents of the training in Vieques had feared the May deadline could be pushed back as the United States considers war with Iraq.

However, Navy Secretary Gordon England said in a letter to Gov. Sila Calderon that the Navy would discontinue operations at nearby Naval Station Roosevelt Roads associated with Vieques training.

The naval base, with some 3,770 full-time employees, is one of the island's largest employers. The base injects an estimated $300 million or more into the Puerto Rican economy each year.

The next training on Vieques , set to begin as early as Monday, would be the Navy's last, England said. Then, "we turn our full attention to the closure and transfer process."

Gov. Sila Calderon immediately named a committee to coordinate the closing of the firing range.

"This action constitutes a triumph for all the people of Puerto Rico and particularly, for the people of Vieques ," Calderon said.

She also thanked President George W. Bush for "keeping his word to the people of Puerto Rico " that the Navy will halt Vieques training by May, adding that Vieques ' 9,100 residents deserve recognition "for their perseverance."

The U.S. Navy, which now owns about one-third of the outlying Puerto Rican island, has used the bombing range for about six decades to prepare for international conflicts. Navy lands are now to be turned over to the U.S. Interior Department.

Protests against the training grew in 1999 after a security guard was killed on the range by errant bombs. Since then the military has used only dummy bombs.

Demonstrators routinely break onto Navy lands to thwart the exercises, saying the maneuvers harm the environment and health of residents. The Navy denies that claims.

"We can't hide our happiness that after so many years and so many struggles we have managed to stop the bombing," said Ismael Guadalupe, a longtime Vieques activist who has opposed the exercises.

Puerto Rican Sen. Miriam Ramirez, of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, said she was disappointed by the news, but added that the issue is not closed for some members of the U.S. Congress.

"I'm disappointed that the wrong side of the issue won this battle," she said.

Vieques Residents Still Doubt Navy Will Leave

By Iván Román | San Juan Bureau

January 11, 2003
Copyright © 2002 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico -- It was just another Friday evening for Rafael Brignoni as he sat snapping dominoes on the wooden table across from the main gates of the U.S. Navy's Camp Garcia.

There was no sense that history had just been made. Only hours earlier, the Navy had finally put in writing that after 60 years, it will stop bombing exercises and leave Vieques for Florida on May 1.

But Brignoni, like most others on the island, wasn't popping champagne corks.

"I'll believe it when I see them bombing over there in Florida," said Brignoni, 76, an Army veteran of the Korean War, sitting before a large painting of a child whose death from cancer activists blame on contamination from the Navy's war games. "The Americans are the biggest professional liars, and we've learned not to trust them."

It has been such a long dispute, such a planned outcome that for many, Friday's announcement in Washington by top Navy brass seemed almost anticlimactic. Activists who have marched endlessly, breathed in tear gas and slept behind bars in the almost four-year face-off to force the Navy to leave its premier training facility in the Atlantic, seemed more focused on fighting the latest round of bombing exercises set to start Monday.

Police were guarding the gate of Camp Garcia across from protest camps that remained empty. People gathered supplies to take on a weekend "March for Peace and Life" on the main island, timed to coincide with next week's bombing exercises.

"If they have alternative sites, why are they going to start bombing exercises Monday? Just because they can, and rub our noses in it?" said Cacimar Zenón, an activist appealing his four-month prison sentence for breaking onto Navy grounds. "We don't trust that the Navy will leave until we see the last sailor leave, so we will keep up the fight."

The May 1 exit date never appeased activists who wanted all training exercises -- even those with dummy bombs -- to stop immediately. That was the goal of hundreds of protesters camped on the controversial target range for about a year after two wayward bombs killed a civilian security guard in April 1999, sparking the clash.

So while they call the Navy's impending exit an indication of success, the activists, unlike politicians, don't see it as an outright victory.

Economic development sought

Once the Navy leaves, the activists and the government of the island's 9,300 people -- bolstered by a 2001 referendum -- will negotiate with the Navy about cleaning up the polluted land and water. They want the land to be used to develop the 52-square-mile island's stagnant economy and create jobs by expanding fishing and tourism.

Carlos "El Prieto" Ventura, president of a local fishermen's association, envisions a Vieques where there are no restrictions on fishing; where artificial reefs will be dropped to help repair damage to the environment; where bombed-out tanks and old airplanes used as target practice will no longer dot the beaches and brush.

Islanders and activists have long blamed the perceived higher rates of cancer in the area on the bombing exercises. The Navy identified some dangerously polluted sites on the western part of the island it relinquished last year but has denied any link between the training and health problems.

"Once they leave, it will do justice to those who are no longer here," said Ventura, whose large family of fishermen often clashed with Navy and Coast Guard ships as they took protests to the high seas. "They will do justice to the future generations if they clean up Vieques and give back the land."

Tough transition ahead

The activists have no illusions about what they call a tough and long transition process. They plan to go to court if the Navy doesn't clean up the base. They are also going to keep watchful eyes on development plans for the sleepy town and attempts by outsiders to grab the land and make quick profits at the expense of the people of Vieques.

"We want to develop it ourselves, not have people from outside come in and make money off the struggle that's been carried out for 62 years," Zenón said.

Ventura said Vieques residents have to be vigilant.

"Now that there could be honey, the flies will appear to try to take part of it," Ventura said. "Our families are the ones who've suffered, and we can't let that happen."

Hundreds In Puerto Rico Finish Two-Day March Against U.S. Navy's Last Planned Vieques Exercises


January 12, 2003
Copyright © 2002 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Hundreds of demonstrators completed a two-day march on Sunday against U.S. Navy plans for one last military training exercise on the outlying Puerto Rican island of Vieques .

About 200 Vieques residents joined hundreds of Puerto Rican activists for the 51-kilomter (32-miles) procession, which began Saturday in east-coast Fajardo and ended outside the seaside Capitol in San Juan.

The marchers camped out in a baseball stadium Saturday night in Carolina, a San Juan suburb.

Some protesters said they were skeptical of the Navy's statement Friday that it would abandon its Vieques bombing range by May, as the U.S. military is preparing for a possible war in Iraq.

"We should be happy, joyful, because the people have triumphed once again," said Vieques Mayor Damaso Serrano, addressing the marchers in front of the Capitol.

The Navy, which owns about one-third of Vieques , planned one last month of bombing exercises, beginning as early as Monday. It has used the bombing range for about six decades to prepare for international conflicts.

Activists had planned the march before the Navy made its announcement.

As Rev. Nelson Lopez of Vieques began denouncing the planned exercises, a U.S. military helicopter flew by, provoking boos from the crowd.

After the next month of exercises, however, the Navy is to discontinue all operations at nearby Naval Station Roosevelt Roads associated with Vieques training, according to a letter sent Friday by Navy Secretary Gordon England to Puerto Rican Gov. Sila Calderon.

The naval base, with some 3,770 full-time employees, is one of the island's largest employers and injects about $300 million into its economy each year, the Navy says.

Anti-Navy demonstrations heated up in 1999, after an errant bomb killed a security guard on the range. Since then, the Navy has only used dummy bombs.

Hundreds have been jailed for trespassing onto Navy lands to thwart exercises. The activists say the exercises harm the environment and health of Vieques ' 9,100 residents, which the Navy denies.

Serrano said Saturday he would endorse any civil disobedience staged during the Navy's exercises this month.

Activists have demanded that the Navy conduct a thorough cleanup of the island, which the Navy has pledged to do before handing its lands back to the U.S. Interior Department.

Puerto Rican Groups To Keep Up Vieques Protests

January 12, 2003
Copyright © 2002 REUTERS. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - Puerto Rican protest groups on Sunday promised to keep up civil disobedience against imminent U.S. war games on Vieques, despite an announcement by the U.S. Navy it will soon end more than a half century of battle training on the tiny island.

The U.S. Navy said on Friday it would stop battle training on Vieques on May 1 and transfer such exercises to bases in the southeastern United States and areas at sea. In mid-2001, amid protests on the Caribbean island against the war games, President Bush halted live-fire training on Vieques.

``Civil disobedience continues to exert pressure,'' said former gubernatorial candidate David Noriega. ``On May 1, the lands will still be contaminated and will still be in federal hands. That's the next battle.''

Sixto Perez, an engineer speaking from the protest camps on Vieques in front of the Navy's Camp Garcia, said few activists believe the Navy will leave as promised. ``I won't believe they have left until months after they stop coming here.''

Twenty nine days of battle training scheduled to begin on Monday may be the last performed by the Navy in Vieques.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt Battle Group was expected to practice aerial bombing and ship-to-shore shelling exercises. Only ``dummy'' bombs will be used on the range, a condition imposed after the death of a civilian security guard in April 1999 during a botched bombing run by a Marine Corps jet.

The death unleashed years of pent-up local resentment against the Navy and sparked a drive across the Caribbean territory for the service to leave the small island off Puerto Rico's east coast that the Navy has used as a bombing range for 60 years. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested in the on-going civil disobedience campaign.

Protest groups are gearing up for the battle group's maneuvers by staging a ``March for Peace and Life in Vieques'' from Fajardo on the east coast to the capital of San Juan. The march began on Saturday and was to conclude on Sunday night.

Protesters argue that the war games damaged the environment and harmed the health of the island's 9,300 residents.

The Navy has denied the claims and insists that Vieques' geography is perfect for air, sea and land maneuvers.

Friday's announcement by the Navy was seen on Puerto Rico as a victory.

``We are celebrating because La isla nena, the baby island, is finally growing up. The little girl is getting dressed like a bride to meet her groom, which is peace,'' said Father Nelson Lopez, a Catholic priest who took part in the march.

Gov. Sila Calderon called the announcement a ``triumph'' for the people of Puerto Rico and of Vieques.

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