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Questions Dog Bright Moment For Puerto Rico

Maria Padilla

January 15, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

My joy runneth over at the news that by May the Navy will pull out of Vieques, the tiny island off the east coast of Puerto Rico used for bombing practices for more than 50 years. And bear with me, because this doesn't make me anti-American.

Puerto Rico -- the land where my parents and my daughter were born and where I was married -- has struggled with this issue, which gained proper attention from Washington only after a stray bomb killed a civilian in 1999.

That bomb jump-started a Puerto Rican civil disobedience movement that was heard the world over, drawing celebrities, politicians and plain folks to stand up for Vieques. The Puerto Rican people had done their fair share to maintain the United States' military might through the Cold War, and it was time for the Navy to move on.

It is a shining moment for Puerto Ricans everywhere that a tiny island of nearly 4 million people got a behemoth like the United States Navy to move.

But as we revel in the moment, many unanswered questions remain. Will the Navy clean up Vieques, an island of pristine shores and gentle hills, and, if so, will they do a thorough job? Puerto Rico's sister island of Culebra still contains fragments of its years as a military bombing site 30 years after the military pulled out.

It seems that in a fit of pique the Navy also has decided to close Roosevelt Roads, the huge naval station in the eastern town of Fajardo that pumps millions into the Puerto Rican economy, but which is not so necessary anymore. The island economy will take a big hit, but you can't have it both ways.

Will Vieques be economically developed or will it remain economically depressed? If the past is prologue, there isn't much happening in Culebra, except for a festival or two each year.

And although some Puerto Ricans may not want to admit it, the military's presence on the island -- once much greater than it is today -- gave Puerto Ricans a sense of importance. Puerto Rico was strategic to the United States out of all proportion to its size. With the Navy gone, there likely will be a sense of dread among islanders. Yes, dread, because island politics is likely to heat up even more -- if that's possible.

The Navy's departure comes at a time when the Commonwealth Party is in power, and party members long have been accused of attempting to bring about Puerto Rico's independence "through the back door" -- that is, through indirect maneuvers and methods, knowing full well that the great majority of Puerto Ricans do not support separation from the United States. You can be sure that the Commonwealth Party's actions will be even more closely scrutinized.

The Navy's decision to move its military exercises to Florida demonstrates, once again, how the island and the state are inextricably linked.

Not only is Florida on the receiving end of thousands of island migrants each year -- about 200 per week or more than 10,000 per year, according to Sentinel research -- but the state also is on the receiving end of the political fallout that may follow the military exercises here. Get ready.

Sunshine State environmentalists already are lining up. Once practice bombings are initiated, the shake, rattle and roll will wear the nerves of even the staunchest military hawk. Imagine more than 50 years of that. And remember, it is not un-American to want a little peace and quiet once you have done your share for these great United States.

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