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Reuters English News Service

Vieques Residents Bid A Farewell To Arms

By John Marino

February 17, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Reuters Limited 2003. All rights reserved. 

VIEQUES , Puerto Rico - For nearly four years, U.S. Navy war games on this tiny island off Puerto Rico were met with spirited protest and civil disobedience that landed more than 1,000 people behind bars in federal prison.

Those protests drew to a close last week as the Navy ended what were likely to be the last of its training exercises before a planned pull-out in May. But worries about Vieques ' future remain and are now focusing on cleanup of the site.

"We're happy that the bombing has probably ended, but we remain skeptical. There is a lot of mistrust," said Robert Rabin, a long-time leader at the protest camps that sprang up along the front gate to Navy property after a bombing accident killed a civilian security guard four years ago.

Many people in the U.S. Caribbean territory of Puerto Rico were galvanized by the drive to end more than six decades of military training on Vieques , a 21-mile-long (33-km-long) island that lies off the eastern tip of Puerto Rico and has about 9,100 residents.

The campaign attracted protesters from further afield, too: In 2001, the Rev. Al Sharpton and attorney Robert Kennedy Jr. were among celebrities arrested protesting military exercises.

For years, residents complained the Navy bombing stifled economic development and worried that it posed a threat to the environment and their health.

Puerto Rican scientists have measured heightened levels of heavy metals in the soil and plants of Vieques from 60 years of Navy bombing. Scientists have also expressed concerns about solvents and other chemicals from bombs, and metal debris from weaponry is littered about the land and water of the island.

Then, when two 500-pound (230-kg) bombs missed their mark by nearly a mile (more than a km), killing civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez in a botched bombing run in April 1999, those concerns exploded into open protest.


Washington announced two years ago that the Navy would pull out by May 2003 and in January the Navy said it would transfer exercises to bases in the southeastern United States.

"We are certainly happy that we are moving into the demilitarization area," Rabin said. "But we are very conscious that there is much more to be done."

For most residents, that means the cleanup and return of lands formally occupied by the Navy.

After the Navy pulls completely off the island by May, nearly half of Vieques - 16,000 of its 33,000 acres (6,400 to 19,800 hectares) - will remain in federal government hands.

Current plans call for most of Camp Garcia, the 12,000-acre (4,800-hectare) military reservation that sprawls across the eastern third of this island, to be transferred to the Department of the Interior to manage as a wildlife refuge, which carries a lower standard of cleanup than if developed for public use.

Plans call for the 900-acre (360-hectare) live impact area where Navy bombs rained down to be fenced off and access permanently denied.

"We will continue struggling for the cleanup and return of the lands. Vieques has the right to sustainable development," said Mayor Damaso Serrano, who spent four months in prison for trespassing on Navy land during protests in 2001.

The Navy has repeatedly denied that its activities harm the environment or the health of residents.

But anti-war games protesters always cited a cancer rate on Vieques at 27 percent above the average in Puerto Rico as a major cause for concern. Now, residents fear the contamination the Navy will leave behind.

Those fears spiked recently after it was discovered that a sunken Navy destroyer, 900 feet (270 metres) off the Vieques coast, was used as a target ship for nuclear tests in the Pacific in 1958.

Also raising concerns was a recent Pentagon acknowledgment that chemical weapons simulants were tested on island beaches in the 1960s. Months after the death of Sanes Rodriguez in 1999, the Navy also acknowledged that it had used depleted uranium munitions during training in Vieques .


Navy studies and those undertaken by local researchers have found heavy metal contamination in local soil, plants, groundwater and seafood.

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is undertaking a series of reviews on existing tests. While it too confirms the contamination, it says that existing levels of toxins are not in sufficient quantities to pose a health risk to local residents.

But residents want more testing, arguing that current cleanup plans, drawn up by Navy contractors, are based on old and limited research.

"The fact that the Navy has not helped Vieques at all is now complicated by the verification of the contamination and the level of cancer we have," said Osvaldo Gonzalez, 65, owner of Vieques Air Link, a small commuter airline that employs 80 people, making it one of the island's largest employers.

"Everyone if afraid. They believe that when the Navy leaves here, they should clean up. At least some of the contaminated areas should be cleaned."

The hard feelings against the Navy go back to the 1940s, when it expropriated three-fourths of the island, displacing whole communities of plantation workers and small land owners.

For decades, the Navy blocked plans for tourism projects and improved utility and transportation services, arguing that such development was incompatible with its training plans.

It was not until the early 1980s, in the wake of fishermen protests and an environmental lawsuit, that the Navy began a real economic development program for Vieques residents. Although a few factories did open, the effort died out after two years.


Residents and Puerto Rico government officials now want at least some of the former Navy lands opened for projects that could spur economic development on the island of secluded beaches and rolling scrub-covered hills.

Most believe that Vieques ' future lies in tourism, and a 156-room luxury resort, the Wyndham Martineau Bay Resort & Spa, will open this month near the airport after years of delay.

Puerto Rico government officials met for the first time this month with federal officials who will oversee the wildlife reserve slated for most of eastern Vieques .

They said they were encouraged by the wildlife officials' commitment to press for the highest level of clean-up "allowable under current law," but said the island government would lobby Congress in an effort to win title to at least some of the former Navy lands.

In the meantime, the protest camps lining Camp Garcia will remain, converted into meeting places for community groups who will continue to exert public pressure for a voice in clean-up and development issues, Rabin said.

"We have been fighting for 60 years to get back the lands they took from us," said 69-year-old Radames Tirado, a former mayor whose childhood home was expropriated and knocked down by Navy bulldozers.

"It will take some time, but we will get the land back and we will get it cleaned up too. No one thought we could stop the bombing and we did that."

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