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The Harrisburg Patriot

DETARGETED; With Navy's Vieques Range To Close, Puerto Rico Will Desire Development

February 10, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Harrisburg Patriot. All rights reserved. 

Its most recent bomb/strafe training exercise in the can, the U.S. Navy is packing up and cleaning up on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico . In May, it will quit Vieques , probably for good.

Obviously, neither the Navy nor Puerto Rico is making a big deal of this notable passage. Both realize the less said about the military's role on the island the better for all concerned.

Since 1941, the Navy has used the southern part of Vieques , approximately 900 out of 33,000 acres, for wartime train ing. This has involved the use of live and dummy ordnance delivered usually by Navy jets.

For several years, Puerto Rican activists have lobbied to end the Navy's presence on Vieques . This intensified in 1999 when a civilian security guard was killed during practice shelling. Then-President Bill Clinton offered Puerto Ricans a referendum on the future of Vieques , but the referendum idea dragged on and was trumped in 2001 when President Bush announced the exercises would end in May 2003.

The withdrawal from Vieques is already casting a ripple effect across the economy of Puerto Rico . Navy sources say the closing of the bombing range likely will precipitate the closing of the Navy's Roosevelt Roads base -- one of the range's chief users. This surely will come as a blow; the Navy controls 15,000 acres of Vieques and it is Puerto Rico 's biggest employer, adding about $250 million annually to local coffers.

But it must be remembered also that military presence is never assured anywhere. Times, technology and missions change, and just as has happened throughout the mainland, Puerto Rico likely will have to cope with the problem of losing its base.

Fortunately, it is in better position to bounce back than some of the depressed areas of the mainland United States. It is a glorious land in a beautiful warm sea. Millions of tourists flock there from all over the world to enjoy the sun, beaches and hospitality. The continuing controversy over the Vieques bombing range was beginning to erode that attraction.

The Vieques range ill fit Puerto Rico 's image and the wishes of a substantial part of its population, many of whom saw it as a hangover from the days of empire. It would be facile to propose that a sudden boost in tourism will quickly make up for the losses from Vieques , but it does offer opportunities to enhance what is for the most part a respectable and low-impact industry.

As for the Navy, it likely will apportion out its bombing practice function among several locales in Florida and North Carolina. And for Puerto Rico , it means restoration of the kind of care-free civilization that Antilleans have come to be known for over the generations -- a lifestyle based on love, not war.

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