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Editorial & Column


Ramey, Culebra, And Vieques


April 15, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

It’s a boringly familiar pattern.

For whatever reasons, one or another of the U.S. armed services, be it the Navy, Air Force, or Army, leaves or is forced to abandon vast holdings of land on the island that for decades served to conduct military operations vital to national defense and security.

The government of Puerto Rico gets an unexpected windfall: In each case, thousands of acres and facilities that belonged to the federal government are transferred free to the local government, suddenly becoming available for economic development purposes. In some instances, such as the former Ramey Air Force Base in Aguadilla, the facilities already contain a world-class, vastly developed infrastructure that can be put to economic development use with minimal investment.

Local government officials, mayors, community groups, businesspeople, and economists all get excited about it. They vow to implement visionary economic development plans to create jobs by putting the newly acquired facilities to their best use. The outspoken minority doesn’t hide its anti-American feelings and actually boasts about the benefits that will supposedly befall Puerto Rico from the U.S. Navy or Air Force packing its bags.

Then, years go by and nothing is done. The promises of booming economic development and jobs for those areas never materialize. No master plan is prepared, and ultimately only a few benefit from the land use, including local mayors who parcel out the land in exchange for votes. Witness Culebra, Ramey, and now Vieques.

In the past 10 months, following our front-page story on the devastating economic impact of the shutdown of Naval Station Roosevelt Roads in Ceiba ("Shock & Awe," CB July 17, 2003), CARIBBEAN BUSINESS has run a series of front-page stories on Ramey, Culebra, and, today, Vieques. We have wanted to present for the record an accurate, in-depth portrait of the extent to which we have foregone the tremendous economic development opportunities that all these cases represented for Puerto Rico.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. There are the central and municipal government administrations, from both parties, that either for political reasons or for lack of vision typically throw out any plans of their predecessors from the opposing party. There’s the left wing, pro-independence minority, including government officials, that often provokes a confrontation with the U.S. government and armed services but doesn’t care one bit about Puerto Rico’s economic development. It is interested only in pursuing a political objective that it knows couldn’t possibly be achieved at the polls.

Then there’s the pusillanimous private sector, often unwilling to take a more pro-active role in Puerto Rico’s economic development and risk stepping on the toes of some government officials. And, of course, there’s the silent majority that has become accustomed over the decades to leaving everything in the hands of the government and then doesn’t hold it responsible for failing to accomplish visionary projects. They all share part of the responsibility.

Vieques is the latest, saddest example. In two weeks, it will be a year since the Navy exited the island following a contentious four-year saga, which many exploited for political purposes that had nothing to do with the best economic interests of the people of Vieques. A year later, not much has happened—except for real-estate prices skyrocketing thanks to rampant speculation by rich people grabbing what they can—and many on the island are asking, "Where are we going, and where are all the people from the Big Island who promised to help us get there?" Good questions.

We hope that a year from now, the people of Ceiba, Naguabo, and all the towns in eastern Puerto Rico won’t have to ask the same questions about the plans to convert to civilian use the 8,600-acre former Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, which officially shut down last month. For the good of those communities—indeed, for the good of all of Puerto Rico, the private sector should, as it is has done stateside, become more involved in the planning and execution of any economic development plans for the former Navy base.

Let it not go to waste like the many other opportunities before it.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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