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Navy Leaves a Battered Island, and Puerto Ricans Cheer


May 2, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

PHOTO: Associated Press

Alberto DeJesus Mercado unfurled the flag of Vièques Thursday after placing it atop an observation tower on the former Navy bombing range.

VIÉQUES, Puerto Rico, May 1 – For most of the more than 9,000 people of Viéques, the official end today of Navy bombing exercises after more than 60 years was cause for an islandwide celebration of the conclusion of a painful era and the hope for a new beginning.

"People are very jubilant," said Ardelle Ferrer, a 51-year-old artist who has been celebrating all week and is building a sculpture in honor of the island. "Everyone is so happy seeing something that seemed so impossible."

Viéques officials were to begin four days of activities celebrating the Navy's departure in the first minutes of today, but the party started early when Gov. Sila M. Calderón arrived on Wednesday afternoon and addressed already jubilant residents. Dozens of locals and residents from the main island, many wearing shirts reading "Celebration of Peace on Viéques," clapped and cheered when the governor arrived at Isabel Segunda's town square to the sounds of a steel band.

"This is a moment of great happiness and profound emotion," Governor Calderón said. "Together, we achieved the end of the bombing."

Surrounded by Puerto Rican government officials and 20 local schoolchildren, Governor Calderón said the Navy's exit "marks the beginning of a new era of peace and tranquility" for Viéques. She said, "This is a triumph for all of the people of Puerto Rico, as well as our brothers and sisters in the United States."

In an interview on Monday, Governor Calderón said that while political pressure had helped end the exercises, President Bush deserved credit for keeping his word to stop them. "It is a testimony to the president's commitment to protect human rights," she said. Her administration was setting aside $50 million for public works improvements here, she added.

For more than 60 years, the Navy used a 900-acre firing range on the eastern tip of the tiny island for bombing exercises. For decades it insisted that the exercises could not take place elsewhere, because the area offered a unique opportunity to conduct ship-to-shore gunnery practice and aerial bombings.

The people of Viéques and the Puerto Rican commonwealth bitterly complained that the drills were dangerous. The practice generated international criticism in 1999, when two errant bombs killed a civilian Puerto Rican security guard.

Thousands of people protested the exercises, including politicians, actors and civil rights activists from the mainland. Under political pressure, President Bush announced in June 2001 that his administration would end the bombing practices today. The military will now conduct the exercises in several southern states, including Florida.

Dámaso Serrano, mayor of Viéques, said the island was a safer place today.

"Thanks to the unity of the people of Viéques, of the people of Puerto Rico, of the people of the United States, we achieved the exit of the Navy and a definite peace for the people of Vieques," Mr. Serrano said. Still, he said a battle would continue to see that the land was cleaned up and returned to the municipality.

Rafael Rivera Castaño, a doctor whose father, Antonio Rivera Rodríguez, was mayor of Viéques from 1949 to 1973, echoed the current mayor's concerns.

"We have to get working again," said Mr. Rivera, who believes Navy activities are responsible for poor health among the island residents.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group, spent a month in jail in 2001 for trespassing during a protest on the island. Mr. Kennedy said the Navy's withdrawal was a mixed blessing. "The problem is they're leaving the poison behind," he said.

"There are tens of thousands of unexploded bombs," Mr. Kennedy said. "Fish are contaminated, crabs are contaminated, seagrass is contaminated. The soils are contaminated with toxins. The fact that they're leaving the island would be great, if they would clean up."

The Navy said in a statement that it had transferred the property to the Department of the Interior, and that it would be cleaned up.

"The Interior Department is required to develop the land for use as a wildlife refuge, with the area used for exercises with live bombs to be designated a wilderness area and closed to the public," the statement said. It said $2.3 million has been designated this year for the Interior Department for the property.

The Environmental Protection Agency said today that it was considering a request by Governor Calderón to add Viéques to the Superfund list of contaminated sites intended for cleanup.

Many people Viéques residents said today that they would worry tomorrow about the environmental issues and the future of the island. Today, they were content to rejoice in a victory they said was too long in coming.

"Ever since I came here to Viéques, my husband told me Viéques needed people who loved the land to rescue it," said Mariá Velazquez, 58, who has lived here since 1963 and took part in a celebratory march through the streets today.

"We've been rescuing it ever since," Ms. Velazquez said. "I feel like I'm walking on air."

Nestor Guisherd, 33, a school guidance counselor on the island, said he was taking part in the festivities despite his disappointment that the military had not relinquished ownership of the land to Puerto Rico. "I'm happy for one thing: the emotion of the town," Mr. Guisherd said. "I celebrate for the emotion of the people."

The marches, demonstrations and celebrations spread across this tiny island, as people danced, prayed, waved flags and cried, some still in disbelief. Most of the events took place without incident, but early today, as the military presence officially ended, hundreds of demonstrators broke through the gates of Camp Garciá, the Navy site. They tore down a guard house and destroyed two trucks and a boat.

"I can't believe what's going on out there," said Ricardo Jordán, 46, an island resident. Pointing to a news organization's van, he said: "They're sending it out all over the world. People will think that's all that's going on."

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who spent 90 days in prison beginning in May 2001 and fasted for 40 days to protest the Viéques military exercises, attended some of the ceremonies."We won a significant battle," Mr. Sharpton said, "one people thought we would never win.".

Burr Vail, the owner of the Hacienda Tamarindo hotel on Viéques, was glad that the military is gone. But he worries that the island he loves will soon be overrun with tourists.

"The bad news is that the Navy has dominated two-thirds of the land for two-thirds of the century," said Mr. Burr, whose hotel is full this week with people who traveled to the island to celebrate the withdrawal. "The good news is that the Navy has dominated two-thirds of the land for two-thirds of the century."

The Navy's presence has has preserved the island to the point where it's "one of a kind in the Caribbean," Mr. Burr said.

"It is not overdeveloped like others," he said. "The island will now be free to choose its own destiny. It's a tremendous change, and a tremendous responsibility."

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