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May 2, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 

Vieques: Is It For You A Time For Joy?

As this week’s edition of the Herald goes onto the web, the dust is settling on "V-Day" in Puerto Rico, May 1st, and the date on which all military training on the island of Vieques ended, beginning a new chapter in the life of the tiny island to the east of Puerto Rico’s land mass. The celebration that greeted V-Day brought singers, activists and politicians to the gates of Camp Garcia, the 14,500 acre U.S. Navy facility that had become a three-year venue for protest against the Navy’s 60-year presence there.

And it also brought chaos. When midnight came – the official hour of Navy departure – a mob of some 800 persons tore down the metal fence, destroyed the concrete structure that served as U.S. Camp Garcia’s entrance, set fire to three military vehicles and generally engaged in an orgy of theft and vandalism. Neither Gov. Sila Calderon’s exhortations to the rioters or Police Superintendent Victor Rivera’s riot squad of some 100 officers were able to quell the violence. Obviously, the mayhem took Commonwealth authorities by surprise. Afterwards, officials blamed it on alcohol consumption. Others said that the violence should have been anticipated.

For weeks leading up to the end of the Vieques military era, the press interviewed Viequenses and other Puerto Ricans for reactions to the culmination of the process by which the U.S. Navy was forced to quit a facility that it considered "perfect for air, sea and amphibious maneuvers." The word most often reported was "Joy."

Clearly, it is a time of joy for separatists in Puerto Rico whose strident protests against the Navy’s use of the facility moved the political debate in Washington away from national security and into domestic politics. The burgeoning Hispanic population in the U.S. and its potential voting clout weakened the Navy’s leverage with the White House to maintain the status quo. Craftily creating a "David vs. Goliath" scenario, mainland conservative political figures such as New York Governor George Pataki joined "lefties" from both the island and the mainland to protest for an end to the training.

Conversely, there is no joy in the hearts of Puerto Ricans who seek permanent union with the United States. The anti-Navy vitriol spewed out by independence-minded Borinqueños over the past three years has been an embarrassment for statehooders and a challenge to articulate a credible middle course. At least it is now over and they can concentrate on damage control.

Without doubt, it is a joyous occasion for those residents of Vieques who saw the Navy presence as a nuisance at best and a menace at worse. Most of the earlier health and pollution claims expressed by opponents to the Navy training remain unproven but the relatively higher cancer rates of residents living close to the practice range are undeniable and have been a cause for concern.

Now that the Navy has weighed anchor, it should offer constrained joy for most politicians, island and mainland, who found it to be a "hot potato," tossed to them by constituents on both sides of the issue. Governor Sila Calderon, who took an anti-Navy hard line during her campaign against the New Progressive Party’s (NPP) candidate, Carlos Pesquera, ran for cover after 9/11 as the national focus shifted to national security and combat readiness for troops on their way to Afghanistan.

Arguably, the most joyous politician is Pedro Rosselló who worked out a deal with the Clinton Administration that would have returned most of the training site to Puerto Rico. The U.S. Congress, enraged by what it perceived as an anti-patriotic attitude by the Calderon administration, changed the authorizing legislation, ceding the base to the Interior Department to be used as a nature preserve. We can expect some gloating on this point when the former Governor begins his political redux, set to begin in June. He will say that the feds still hold the key to Camp Garcia’s gate.

There is definitely not joy, in fact there is abject sorrow, among the thousands of men and women who have already lost their employment or soon will receive "pink slips" as a result of the Navy pull out. Half of the work force at the Navy base at nearby Roosevelt Roads have already left, or soon will depart, and it is a good bet that the entire facility – the Navy’s largest outside of the continental U.S. – will be terminated in 2005, when a special base-closing committee of the federal government makes its recommendations to Congress and the President.

This is a chance for Herald readers to express their emotions about the new day for Vieques. Are you in a festive mood or are you close to your crying towel?

This Week's Question:
Vieques: Is It For You A Time For Joy?

US . Residents
. PR
Yes 36%
57% No 59%
2% Neither 5%


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