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The Republican

Closure of Puerto Rico Naval Base a Cause for Celebration in Wmass

By Natalia Munoz; Staff Reporter, Columnist, La Vida Latina

April 18, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Republican. All rights reserved. Used by Factiva with permission.

When Roosevelt Roads, the largest U.S. Navy base in Puerto Rico, closed on March 31, the news was celebrated in Western Massachusetts as well as on the Caribbean island.

Mara Idal Torres of Springfield, a professor of community health at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, had visited the white, powder-soft beaches of Vieques, Puerto Rico, many times over the years. But something was off kilter in paradise: military maneuvers just four miles away from a civilian population and contaminated residue from bombs in the ground, water and air.

"I believe in peace, and we should be relying on dialogue and diplomacy to resolve conflicts and not arms-building," she said recently.

So Torres founded Todo Springfield con Vieques, All of Springfield with Vieques, to support the small Puerto Rican island of 9,000 residents caught between a rock and a hard place. For six decades, the west side of the island was used for storing missiles in huge underground warehouses and the eastern end was the site of bomb testing from jets and ships.

Six decades of this was far too long for most Viequenses and their sympathizers, such as Torres.

The local group rallied against the war games on the 21-mile long by 5-mile wide dry and mountainous island. "I have friends in Vieques and when I came back I wanted to pass on the information about what was happening there. I wanted to support the people in Vieques," Torres said.

The connection between Roosevelt Roads base and Vieques was symbiotic: The base supplied the weapons, vehicles and soldiers and Vieques the grounds for testing. And so with the closing of the Vieques target range May 1, 2003 - about five months after the last bombing exercises - the days of Roosevelt Roads were numbered.

Despite the loss of 200 low paying jobs, mostly in maintenance and groundskeeping, hardly anyone is sad to see the base close. Ceiba, one of Puerto Rico's poorest towns, was the site of this U.S. Navy base that for more than 50 years served as a launching pad for military actions in Grenada, Haiti, Panam and other Caribbean and Latin American countries.

At its busiest, 7,000 people lived and worked within its perimeter, but Ceiba's 18,000 residents never reaped much from the base.

There were restaurants and hamburger and barbecue joints that catered to the base personnel, but the service economy at that level doesn't bring in big money. And unlike other communities stateside with military bases, Ceiba never saw a dime of rent money for the 13 square miles the military used.

But battleships and fighter jets were a regular sight off Puerto Rico's eastern coast. Puerto Rico's small municipal islands of Culebra and Vieques, four miles east of Ceiba's shores, were the target ranges for U.S. and NATO to test new weapons and train new soldiers.

From la isla grande - Puerto Rico, the big island - night-time target practices unleashed piercing flashes of explosions; lightning violently burrowing into the ground like a dog hysterically digging for a bone. The rumble of detonating bombs was distant thunder closing in.

Then, on the night of April 21, 1999, lightning and thunder in the form of an errant 500-pound bomb crashed into a military Observation Post in Vieques, killing a Viequense, David Sanes, a civilian security guard.

After six decades of simmering grief, Vieques' residents themselves exploded into a rage that for the next three years manifested itself into weekly protests against military maneuvers on their island. More than 1,500 people were arrested for civil disobedience, including trespassing on federal military lands -- and sea with small fishing boats -- to force the testing to end, if only temporarily.

Of the base closing and job losses, Agma Parrilla of Westfield said, "No job is worth bombing Puerto Rican soil for."

Founder of Todos con Vieques of Massachusetts, Parrilla's organization marched in the Puerto Rican parades in Springfield and New York City and sponsored an art exhibit by Viequense Ernesto Pea, who spent his 90 days in federal prison drawing portraits of fellow jailed protesters, at the Spanish American Union in Springfield in 2001.

"There were many people from here involved in the Vieques movement," said Parrilla, whose father was born and raised in Vieques.

When she saw a newspaper headline announcing the closing of Roosevelt Roads, she was taken aback. "It made me sad. The headline said, 'The lights are out in Ceiba now.' As if we were a chewing gum, and all the sugar was gone so it was spit out."

But Ceiba could be in for a sweeter future. The Puerto Rican government has proposed turning the area into a cruise ship dock, commercial airport, tourist resort and light industrial park.

Hundreds of jobs, many of them well-paying, may be on the horizon now that the battleships have sailed on.

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