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A New Beginning…Scene Changes…Celebrating Navy's Exit…A Bittersweet Win… Chronology Of Events

Vieques: A New Beginning

A look back at events that led to the closing of the Navy range

By Proviana Colón Díaz of WOW News

May 1, 2003
Copyright © 2003 WOW NEWS. All rights reserved.

Editors Note: On May 1, the U.S. Navy will close the target range it has used for over 60 years in Vieques and transfer the land to the U.S. Department of the Interior.  In an effort to bring to our readers the best online coverage of the historic event, WOW News Staff will be in Vieques from April 30 until May 3 reporting on the turn of events at the municipality. As part of our special coverage, we have set up a link in our homepage that will take you straight to the latest news from Vieques. In addition, we will set up a photo gallery for a broadened perspective on the developments in the island municipality. We hope our coverage will be of your satisfaction.

On April 1999, an accidental bombing by a U.S. Navy aircraft landed on top one of U.S. Camp Garcia’s observation points, killing Vieques resident and civilian guard David Sanes.

In the municipality, dubbed the baby island by many, the Navy had been using Camp Garcia’s target range for more than 60 years. Since then, the military presence in Vieques had received mixed reviews. Some argued that the Navy had supported them when local authorities had forgotten them.

Others argued that the Navy had been a bad neighbor, who took their land, prevented local businesses from starting, contaminated the waters, and were even the cause for increasing cancer rates among the population. Medical studies, however, still show mixed reviews on that matter.

The debate over the presence of the Navy in Vieques, however, came at a crossroads with Sanes’ death. Up until that moment, the demand for an ousting of the military from the municipality was carried by a group of residents considered to be the minority, which were often associated with pro-independence sectors.

Two days after the accidental bombing occurred, the Navy’s presence in Vieques moved to La Fortaleza when then New Progressive Party Gov. Pedro Rossello met with top military personnel and demanded an investigation.

A few days later, a pro peace environmentalist activist Alberto De Jesus, known as Tito Kayak, carried a white cross into the Navy target range and set up camp in the zone. De Jesus said that by becoming a human shield, he would attempt a halt in military practices.

"The bomb that killed David (Sanes) will be the last one dropped by the Navy," De Jesus then said.

His action was followed by hundreds of demonstrators. Crossing religious and political ideologies at a given point, 14 camps had been established in the Navy’s target range.

Puerto Rican Independence Party President Ruben Berrios quit his post in the Senate and set up camp in Vieques. He argued that demonstrators were engaging in civil disobedience.

They would stay in the area for nearly a year as it wasn’t until May 2000 when the demonstrators were removed.

In the meantime, Rossello set up a special committee to investigate the matter and come up with an alternative solution.

By December 1999, then U.S. President Bill Clinton announced his decision to resume military operations in Vieques after receiving recommendations from then Secretary of Defense William Cohen.

What became known as the Clinton-Rossello agreement over Vieques included the continuation of military practices with inert ordinance for 90 days a year until May 2003 unless the people of Vieques wanted the Navy to stay.

It also called for an ambitious economic development plan for the municipality that would be implemented during the transition period. It included a $40 million economic program and the transfer of most of the 8,000 acres of Navy-held land on the western part of the island to Puerto Rico.

With a change in both the federal and local administrations, however, that changed.

Protests continued with prominent figures such as Robert Kennedy Jr., Rev. Al Sharpton, and actor Edward James Olmos being arrested for trespassing federal land during the resumption of military practices in Vieques.

International figures such as Nobel Peace Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchu and Rev. Jesse Jackson also visited the island.

Protests did turn violent at times, and the Navy often used tear gas to control the melee. 

President George W. Bush kept the May 2003 date for the closing of the target range, the lands will now be transferred to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The land will now be a wildlife reserve.

While some argue that there is cause for celebration on May 1, others note that the demand for a return of the land and its clean up will continue.

Regardless of what is to occur, many can agree that May 1 marks in Vieques a new beginning.

Scene Changes In Vieques

By Proviana Colon Diaz of WOW News

APRIL 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003 WOW NEWS. All rights reserved.

VIEQUES – The sign reading Camp Garcia is no longer there.

The military posts that could be spotted from the highway are also gone.

And military personnel are nowhere to be seen.

The gate built following the removal of protesters from military ground on May 4, 2000, to clearly define the buffer zone is also gone.

Although U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service personnel opened the gates around noon Wednesday, a thick chain was placed by Vieques anti-U.S. Navy leaders to close it again.

At midnight May 1, in a symbolic act, they will cut the chain open and enter the 16,0000 acres of land that for the past 68 years have been used as a target range by the Navy.

The ceremony will be followed by an ecumenical event and a series of activities that are expected to last some 24 hours.

Then Vieques will begin a new path, one in which the neighbor is no longer the Navy but the U.S. Department of the Interior, a new struggle to get the transfer of the land to the local government is scheduled to begin.

But already Gov. Sila Calderon is giving signs that such might not be the case as she said the Fort San Cristobal del Morro administration was a perfect example of how well the local government works with the Department of the Interior.

Still, in Vieques, as the countdown for the midnight deadline approaches, anticipation grows and scores of people continue to arrive on the island.

Crews were giving the finishing touches to the stage that has been set outside Camp Garcia, and people made their way in a festive mood.

T-shirts, flags, and memorabilia have been made specifically for the occasion and are expected to be sold out by the break of dawn.

Celebrating Navy's Exit


APRIL 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Knight Ridder Newspapers. All rights reserved.

The Bradenton Herald

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -On May 1, the people of Vieques are planning a large party -- a four-day, 'round-the-clock fiesta of fireworks and salsa music -- to celebrate a landmark event: the official end of the tiny island's existence as a target range for the U.S. Navy.

The Navy's departure is both a milestone in Puerto Rican history -- the Navy's presence on Vieques dates back to the 1940s -- and an opportunity for residents to celebrate because they blame the range for crippling the economy, spoiling the fish stock and making children sick.

Residents who once threw themselves in the line of fire as Vieques waged a campaign to oust the Navy will be feted as guests of honor.

Meanwhile, seven miles away by boat on the main island of Puerto Rico, the sprawling Navy base that once served as headquarters for Vieques training is shrinking dramatically -- if not disappearing altogether -- and few in Puerto Rico would consider that a reason to celebrate.

Nearly half of Naval Station Roosevelt Roads' employees are shipping out, leaving one of the island's largest employers ripe for closure. And a day after the Vieques range becomes the Caribbean's largest national wildlife refuge, an important U.S. Army command in charge of Latin America operations will begin to leave its base near San Juan for Texas.

Though the decision to move to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio was based on cutting costs and boosting living standards, the protesters who often closed his bases' gates made soldier life in Puerto Rico uncomfortable, said Maj. Gen. Alfred Valenzuela, who leads U.S. Army South.

''There were some occasions these demonstrations got a little bit dicey,'' Valenzuela said. ``Attacks in the newspaper, that doesn't hurt me. But what does hurt me is when you throw rocks at my school buses.''

After the U.S. Southern Command left Panama in 1997, its headquarters moved to Miami-Dade, but Puerto Rico became the hub for the largest concentration of U.S. military forces in Latin America and the Caribbean. Now hundreds of millions of dollars in military spending on the island could be lost.

Although no precise payroll numbers are available, about half of the estimated 3,700 active-duty military and 3,800 civilians who support them will be leaving because of reductions at Roosevelt Roads and the departure of Army South, according to Southcom.

Gov. Sila Calderón, who fought to get the Navy out of Vieques, says her government also will work hard to keep the military at Roosevelt Roads.


But if that battle is lost, Calderón eyes the property optimistically. Perhaps it could be the site of the island's second international airport, a cruise ship pier, a center for eco-tourism in eastern Puerto Rico, she said recently.

''We have to see it as an opportunity, not with worry, but as a good possibility,'' Calderón said.

But some, like Mimi Lopez Ceperos, who live near the eastern Puerto Rico base in Ceiba, say otherwise. Since 1961, Lopez has glued together Styrofoam balls and pipe cleaners to make souvenirs she sells to draw visitors to her dress shop. But fewer sailors stop by since training abated a few years ago.

''The biggest mistake in the world would be to close that base,'' Lopez said. ``We would die of hunger.''


Since 1898, the U.S. armed forces have had a presence in Puerto Rico, a strategic post situated at the opening to the Caribbean Sea. Later, the Navy began to gobble up land on Vieques, forcing families to move, and at one point owned up to 80 percent of the land.

Relations worsened in 1999, after a Navy pilot training for a mission in Kosovo veered off course and dropped a bomb on an observation tower, killing 35-year-old civilian guard David Sanes Rodríguez. That same year, the Navy admitted a Marine fighter jet mistakenly dropped 263 shells tipped with depleted uranium on the range and that it had previously used napalm in training. Over the years more than 1,000 protesters have been arrested, and such figures as actor Edward James Olmos, singer Marc Anthony and Robert Kennedy Jr. have taken up the cause.

The debate also fueled Puerto Rico's independence movement, whose followers say the island is strangled by its ''colonial'' relationship with the United States.

But Puerto Rico still has the highest recruitment rate nationwide for the Army, and the highest retention rate for the Reserves. Troops say the military gives them a shot at an education and other opportunities.

At Roosevelt Roads, the closing of the Vieques range has caused a ripple effect. Without the bombing range, the Navy is cutting 60 percent of its $100 million base budget, leaving many other base tenants without the infrastructure they need to operate. An elite Special Operations command will return stateside. The 400-person naval hospital will close, and an aerial counter-drug operation will fly away.


Whether Roosevelt Roads -- which the military says contributes $300 million a year to the local economy -- closes will be up to Congress in 2005, when it evaluates installations nationwide. Roosevelt Roads' saving grace may be its deep-water port and airfield -- the only ones on U.S. soil in the Caribbean.

Navy Capt. John R. Warnecke, Roosevelt Roads' commanding officer, said the cutbacks aren't about retribution, but finances.

''I know the accusations in the paper are that the Navy is trying to get back at Puerto Rico for driving us out of Vieques. That couldn't be farther from the truth,'' Warnecke said. 'Downsizing is the right thing to do with the U.S. taxpayers' dollar.''


Meanwhile, the Atlantic Fleet training facility will move to sites in northern Florida and North Carolina. In Vieques, a nature reserve will replace the bombing range, which makes Ismael Guadalupe Ortiz very happy.

Guadalupe was one of the first arrested in an anti-bombing range protest in 1979. His son, also named Ismael, is in jail for storming the bombing range in January.

The people won, he said, but there is still much work to do. He and others want to make sure the U.S. government sticks to its promise to clean up its former range of undetonated bombs and napalm it once used. But Guadalupe will be there when the party begins at midnight, cheering with hundreds of others.

At that moment, Warnecke, Roosevelt Roads' commander, says he'll likely be asleep. But he has one concern about the fireworks show:

``I hope they don't start fires. Because there won't be a Navy fire department there to put it out.''

A Bittersweet Win

By Iván Román | San Juan Bureau

APRIL 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved.

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico -- Myrna V. Pagán should be ecstatic that as of Thursday, no more bombs will fall, and the U.S. Navy will be gone for good from this island she calls home.

After all, she was arrested fighting for the cause.

But hospital visits this week are keeping her too busy to savor the event. She must find out whether her hysterectomy was successful in stopping her uterine cancer. She must visit her best friend, who is in critical condition fighting lung cancer.

She must pace the waiting room while surgeons remove an extra thumb from her 18-month-old grandson's right hand. She'll talk to doctors about further tests to show why there is so much lead in his little body.

Like so many of her neighbors, Pagán blames most of Vieques' high incidence of chronic illness on pollution and toxic substances the Navy used and left behind during 60 years of pounding this island with bombs from warplanes and battleships.

"I think the celebration . . . is great, but I'm not in a party mood," said Pagán, who will be attending a cancer-prevention conference in San Juan instead of festivities marking the formal end of Navy operations at Vieques.

"We fought hard for this day, and I celebrate that, heart and soul," she said. "But one of our biggest battles is here, now -- the decontamination not only of the environment, but of the community."

Midnight marks the official end of target practice on Vieques, considered the Navy's crown jewel of training facilities in the Atlantic. The Navy is taking its training to stateside target ranges -- including several in Florida -- after a four-year struggle about the bombing runs here.

That long-running battle uncorked resentment against the United States, landed more than 1,000 protesters behind bars and strained relations with Washington and the military.

With fireworks at just after midnight tonight, Vieques residents, celebrities, religious leaders and politicians start four days of praying, performing and partying to celebrate victory in this stage of the struggle and to herald the start of the next: the cleanup.

Victims remembered

White crosses bearing names of cancer victims placed near the main gates of the old Camp García remind many that the end of bombing is merely a step in resolving the Vieques controversy.

"We are celebrating now the peace that the people of Vieques wanted with this first phase of demilitarization," said Vieques Mayor Dámaso Serrano, a Vietnam veteran who spent 120 days in jail for trespassing in protest onto former Navy grounds. "That first phase took 68 years. I hope the decontamination phase doesn't take that long."

Not only must the residents of the 52-square-mile island fight to have the military clean up the land, but they also must convince Congress to give it all back.

The military purchased or was ceded three-quarters of Vieques -- about 26,000 acres -- in the late 1930s to fortify plans to build Naval Station Roosevelt Roads on Puerto Rico's east coast. With Navy land on both sides, residents were sandwiched in the middle, left with a strangled local economy that forced migration for generations.

Two years ago during the current controversy, the Navy gave up 8,400 acres on the west side, but only 4,375 went to the municipality. In the last salvo once the Navy's exit seemed inevitable, Congress determined last year that the 15,500 acres on the eastern side of Vieques to be handed over goes to the U.S. Department of the Interior to become a wildlife refuge.

That puts about a fifth of the land the Navy controlled since World War II back in local control.

"Our government's public policy is that once the lands are cleaned up, they should go back to the hands of the people of Puerto Rico," said Juan Fernández, the island's commissioner for Vieques. "It's the people's land, and we will fight for it."

Controversy grew

The controversy that profoundly rattled U.S.-Puerto Rico relations was set off April 19, 1999, when two wayward bombs from an F/A-18 fighter jet killed civilian security guard David Sanes Rodríguez outside the observation post overlooking the target range on the island's eastern tip.

Two days later, protesters began camping out on the target range to block further bombing. Bitter enemies in Puerto Rico's political, civic and religious camps came together for an unprecedented joint effort to get the Navy off Vieques.

The face-off between officials in San Juan and Washington got hotter when local activists discovered that the Navy accidentally used tank-piercing bullets coated with depleted uranium.

News of napalm and other toxins used during the years raised anxieties even more.

Vieques became a cause célèbre, with activists around the world and celebrities and politicians from the U.S. mainland taking their turns behind bars -- including environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., actor Edward James Olmos and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

President Clinton brokered the agreement in January 2000 that allowed for bombing until May 1, 2003.

Gov. Sila Calderón's tough stance against further bombing helped bring her to office in January 2001, but her court battles to stop the training ahead of the deadline did not work. She held her own referendum in Vieques -- different from the Navy-sponsored one set up in the Clinton-brokered agreement -- in which 67 percent of the voters said they wanted bombing to stop immediately.

Spotlight moved away

With Republican politicians feeling the pressure, President Bush announced in June 2001 that the Navy would leave Vieques by May 2003. The decision enraged the Navy's defenders in Congress, while protesters and Calderón fumed at having to put up with two more years of bombing.

But after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Vieques issue took a back seat to war and terrorism. Now Calderón wants Puerto Rico to have a strong voice in the cleanup process as she tries to repair strained relations with Washington.

"When it will be done, how much it will cost, how will we do it, that's something that has to be discussed within the context of two partners collaborating," Calderón said. "The most important thing that I want this process to do is to heal the notion that this was an anti-American or anti-U.S.A. or anti-Navy effort."

Initial talks among local and federal officials already indicate the process will be long, contentious and expensive.

Residents remain convinced that bomb fragments and the open burning of weapons made them sick. They want a cleanup that ensures there are no dangerous contaminants in water, air or the food chain.

The Navy vehemently denies that its military training has hurt the health of Vieques' 9,100 residents. Although several studies have indicated higher rates of cancer and elevated levels of contaminants for the island and its inhabitants, military officials insist there is no direct link.

Cleanup ahead

During the 1990s, the Navy reported heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium and manganese in waters around the island that were hundreds of times above limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Researchers have also found toxic levels of metals in land crabs and in mangoes, pineapples, bananas and chili peppers.

"I think the Navy is doing everything possible to reduce its responsibility for the cleanup," said Luis Rodríguez, the secretary of natural and environmental resources who has been involved in the cleanup negotiations. "This is going to be a contentious process, and we're going to have to be aggressive. And if we have to go to court, we will. There's no doubt about that."

EPA Administrator Christine Whitman said during a visit to Puerto Rico in December that when it came to cleaning up Vieques, "we're going to do it right, and we're going to do it as fast as we can."

EPA community forums begin in Vieques in the fall. Finally addressing activists' call for a seat at the table, Puerto Rico officials have included eight Vieques residents on its transition team.

"The EPA's role is to ensure that whatever cleanup is done is done properly and is consistent with the future use of the land," said Bonnie Bellow, the agency's spokeswoman.

For now, activists are emotional about what they have baptized "the rebirth of Vieques," when the thunder of bombs no longer rattles homes and warplanes don't pierce the clouds.

"This achievement is extraordinary when you look at our history," said Serrano, the town mayor. "We finally got them out, peacefully.

"I've cried many times during this struggle, and I'm sure now is no exception."

Chronology Of Events Of Navy's Use Of Vieques

APRIL 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

The following is a list of events in the history of the U.S. Navy's presence on Vieques island:

1940s - U.S. Navy acquires two-thirds of the 20-by-4-mile (32-by-6 kilometer) island, paying a reported $1.4 million to land owners.

1983 - Vieques used to train for U.S. invasion of Grenada.

1999 - In April, Off-target bombs on the firing range kill civilian guard David Sanes, 35, and wound four others. Exercises suspended. In June, U.S. President Bill Clinton orders review of Vieques operations. In December, Clinton decides Navy should resume exercises but with dummy bombs, and leave island in five years; Puerto Rican government rejects it.

2000 - In January, Puerto Rico accepts Clinton plan allowing Navy to resume training for at least three years using inert bombs; Vieques residents are to decide whether the Navy should leave in referendum. In May, the Navy resumes exercises, using inert bombs.

2001 - In April, actor Edward James Olmos and environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. are among scores of protesters detained for trespassing on Navy lands. In June, U.S. President George W. Bush announces the Navy with stop Vieques operations by May 2003. A month later, 68 percent of Vieques' residents vote in a non-binding referendum to immediately end Navy bombing.

2002 - In April, military police use tear gas against demonstrators who allegedly threw rocks at officers guarding the Navy fence line. In June, Adm. Robert J. Natter says training in Florida and other parts of the United States will offer advantages over training in Vieques. In October, the Pentagon acknowledges chemical weapons testing in the 1960s in Vieques.

2003 - In February, the Navy concludes its last bombing exercises, and demonstrators take to the streets to celebrate. In April, the Navy announces cutbacks at nearby Roosevelt Roads Naval Station on the main island of Puerto Rico. In May 1, Navy formally withdraws from Vieques, turning over island's eastern third to U.S. Department of the Interior.

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