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January 16, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 

Vieques Was The Top News Event Of 2003

In the Herald’s first Hot Button Issue Poll of 2004, readers decided that the U.S. Navy’s departure from Vieques was the most significant Puerto Rican news event of 2003. It became the top choice in a "photo finish" with Pedro Rosselló’s dramatic reentry into island politics, only one percentage point separating the two stories. The December 2003 announcement by the White House, that it would study the political status options for Puerto Rico, claimed considerable reader support while holding down third place, but both the Iraq War and Governor Sila Calderon’s withdrawal from future elective politics claimed little attention in Puerto Rico’s busy year just past.

Here is how the final voting concluded.

1. Navy Leaves Vieques 33% (1) 32% (1) 33% (1)
2. Rosselló’s Return 28% (2) 26% (2)* 32% (2)
3. White House Status Task Force 24% (3) 26% (2)* 21% (3)
4. Iraq War 8% (4) 10% (4) 5% (5)
5. Sila Calderon’s Withdrawal 7% (5) 6% (5) 9% (4)
*Tie for second place

This week’s poll question asks readers to make their choice as to how the land of the former training facility on Vieques should be used.

The choice of Vieques by Herald readers as the primal event of 2003 reflects the passion with which all Puerto Ricans recently treated the issue, beginning in April 1999, when bombs from a Navy jet missed their mark, killing security guard David Sanes Rodríguez and injuring four others, and extending right up to May 1, 2003, when the Navy folded its ensigns on the 52-square mile Vieques for the last time after sixty years of use.

It also foreshadows the likelihood that Vieques will remain a vexing issue pitting any future Commonwealth administration against the U.S. federal government in a tug-of-war over its use for decades to come.

The three years of protest and negotiations between the time of the fatal accident and the Navy’s final departure was the culmination of an ongoing debate in Puerto Rico about the suitability of the Navy playing war games on Puerto Rican soil that began shortly after WWII. Acquired in 1941, the Navy considered Vieques and another smaller off-shore island, Culebra, as irreplaceable settings for air, amphibious and ground assault maneuvers for U.S. and foreign troops.

Throughout its tenancy, the Navy wanted to expand its use beyond the current base’s limits. Originally, it wished to move the 52-square mile island's entire civilian population to St. Croix so that all of Vieques could be used as a military base. In 1961, the Department of Defense proposed to eliminate the municipality of Vieques so that the entire island could be handed over to the Navy. In 1964, the Navy tried unsuccessfully to expand along the entire southern coast of Vieques.

All of these expansion efforts were checked by island public opinion against them, backed by Puerto Rico Government demarches to Washington.

From the beginning, radical factions, especially within the Puerto Rico Independence Party, characterized the Navy as an "occupying force" and its training exercises as "acts of aggression" against a sovereign state. In 1975, the Navy abandoned Culebra on the heals of island-wide outrage over the jailing of twelve Puerto Rican protestors who had performed acts of civil disobedience in order to force a Navy pullout.

Bruised nationalism was not the only pain felt by Puerto Ricans by the Navy’s use of Vieques. Local fishermen complained that their operations were truncated each time the Navy practiced and that the bombing damaged marine life. After an investigation, the Navy admitted to firing depleted uranium shells on Vieques, albeit accidentally. Although unproven, there were charges of increased cancer rates among Vieques residents and accusations that the high decibel levels of explosions during training caused vibroacoustic disease among fishermen. These risks sewed fear throughout the local population and among Puerto Ricans generally, swelling the passion for a Navy pullout.

This history of conflict set the stage for the final showdown that ended on May 1st of last year when Camp Garcia was turned over to the Department of Interior and administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. To the embarrassment of Puerto Rico’s government and local authorities, vandals were the first contingent to enter the gates, smashing guard houses and burning vehicles. This hooliganism belied the legitimacy of the anti-Navy protest movement in the minds of pro-Navy supporters, many of whom hold important offices in the U.S. Congress.

The controversy is far from over. The land on which the base was located is still in the hands of the federal government and there is little prospect that it will be turned over to local authorities any time soon – if ever.

Since May, some progress has been made to eventually return Camp Garcia to its pristine state. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has included Vieques, Culebra and the surrounding waters on its list of national decontamination priorities and the Navy states that it will clean up some areas that were used as actual target ranges, as well as garbage dumps and a parking lot.

Also, the Navy has invited bidders to make proposals to study the Vieques ecosystem and make recommendations for future economic development of the island and to share the information obtained with Federal and Commonwealth Agencies. Any recommendation flowing from that research is likely years away.

The price paid to extricate Vieques from use by the U.S. Navy is a high one, unless Commonwealth authorities can convince Washington to turn the land to productive use in the near term.

When and if that does occur, what use would you like to see the federal enclave on Vieques put to?

Please vote above!

This Week's Question:
When and if change does occur, what use would you like to see the federal enclave on Vieques put to?

(US Mainland Residents, please vote on the left; PR Residents on right)

US . Residents
. PR
A nature preserve 35%
11% A non-military federal use 13%
28% Tourism development 29%
17% Mixed-use real estate 23%


.To submit your idea for a future PR Herald poll question or "Hot Button" issue, please click here.

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