Puerto Rico Ends Life As Military Colony

by John Marino

April 2, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. The Navy officially ceased military activities at Naval Station Roosevelt Roads this week, assuming a caretaker role over the massive property until the transfer of its lands and other assets for civilian use can be completed.

The move to close Roosevelt Roads was conducted at a breathtaking pace, considering the Navy had announced its intention to shutter the base last May, after being forced to abandon its prized bombing range on the adjacent island of Vieques.

That's one reason why the event passed without any widespread protest or celebration, as was the case when the Navy exited Vieques on May 1, 2003.

A small group of government officials gathered at the base to give a briefing on their plans to redevelop the base, as an even smaller contingent of local residents gathered to clamor for a greater voice in those plans.

But despite the low-key nature of the closure, it marked an historic passing in U.S.-Puerto Rico relations.

It's the first time the Navy is without a presence on Puerto Rico since the Spanish-American War, which began the U.S.-Puerto Rico relationship.

Moreover, with just the Army's Fort Buchanan left in the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo, it marks the end of Puerto Rico's role as a U.S. military colony. Most observers believe that the Buchanan base is on the Pentagon hit-list during the next round of base closures in 2005.

One of the few local news reports to look at the base closure from a historic perspective was written by San Juan STAR Washington correspondent Robert Friedman.

Pro-statehood Sen. Miriam Ramírez de Ferrer was quoted saying that the closure should be seen as "the lowering of U.S. flag in Puerto Rico." It shows that a large number of Congressmen and others see Puerto Ricans as wanting to separate from the United States, she said.

Puerto Rican Independence Party official Manuel Rodríguez Orellana added: "the military colony is no longer military, just a colony. Now the United States is going to have to decide what they are going to do with us."

Rodríguez Orellana criticized colleagues in the New Progressive and Popular Democratic parties for not discussing the direction Puerto Rico can take after ending life as a military colony.

The truth of the matter is that Puerto Rico has been declining in military importance to the United States over the decades. Built in World War II, Roosevelt Roads was designed to defend the United States against attack from trans-Atlantic enemies. In recent years, that importance has been relegated to training the Atlantic Fleet to fight battles thousands of miles away.

And while Puerto Rico no longer provides physical space to the U.S. military, its residents continue to enlist in the Armed Services in great numbers, providing another aspect of strategic military importance.

Whether or not the end of Puerto Rico's historic role as a military colony will have much of an impact on future movement on status remains to be seen.

But it's certainly a fitting time for both Puerto Rico and the United States to take earnest steps towards trying to bring a final status solution to the island.

Whether or not that happens, unfortunately, will have to wait until next year, as elections in San Juan and Washington could bring a whole new roster of players to the fore.

For now, commonwealth government officials are waxing poetic about "the golden opportunity" the closure of the 8,600-acre base is presenting to develop a truly diverse economy on the island's east coast.

They are paying less attention to the estimated loss of $300 million the base pumped annually into the local economy. Some 6,000 sailors and dependents living at the base are now gone, and about 2,500 civilian jobs have been lost -- a situation that has already sent the local real-estate market into a tailspin and has crimped the earnings of local merchants.

But the truth is the situation could have been far worse.

Under a plan pushed by the Navy's congressional allies, the base would have been shuttered in six months and sold off to the highest bidder. The commonwealth would have been completely cut out of any decision-making about how best to develop the base.

The plan was seen as the Navy attempting revenge on Puerto Rico for having forced it to abandon its Vieques training range.

But Congress, after intense lobbying, put a more reasonable plan in effect, with Department of Defense, commonwealth and environmental officials undertaking the redevelopment plan.

The commonwealth wants to put to use the base's airport and hospital fairly quickly, as well as to begin using its deep-water port.

Preliminary plans also call for setting aside 3,000 acres for a nature reserve and low-impact eco-tourism, future tourism development as well as development of a science and technology center.

Former Gov. Pedro Rosselló wants to move aggressively in establishing a trans-shipment port at the base, a position the PDP administration is against.

So, the future development of the old Navy base commonly known as Rosie Roads will depend much on who sits in La Fortaleza come January.

But whoever is calling the shots then will face not only an opportunity but a challenge.

The redevelopment of the Ceiba base is probably the most important action the local government can take over the next decade on the economic front.

Doing it right is not just important, it's vital to Puerto Rico's future well-being.

John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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