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THE MIAMI HERALD
A Civil And Social Battle For Vieques Island
by Roberto Fabricio
August 31, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, Puerto Rico -- Perched on a
mountaintop that looks out to the Caribbean, the headquarters
of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet South command a magnificent view of
Vieques island, just seven miles to the southeast.
But despite its closeness, the premier training and artillery-practice
site is begining to drift away from the Navy's 58-year grasp.
It hasn't fired a shot or landed a single Marine in Vieques since
April 19, when a resident employee of the Navy was killed accidentally
during bombing training.
``I wasn't expecting this problem to become so complex,'' base
commandant Capt. James Starke told the San Juan newspaper El Nuevo
Día. ``There is a constellation of circumstances in alignment
to create this mess.''
The "mess'' is a historic, first-ever consensus here that
Vieques belongs to Puerto Rico, not the United States, and that
Puerto Rico wants it back. Recent polls say 74 per cent of Puerto
Ricans want the Navy out of Vieques.
Consensus is important because it draws the line regarding
what is Puerto Rican and what is American, a subtle but important
distinction in this U.S. commonwealth.
That feeling is fueled by an unprecedented upsurge in nationalism
in the island's discourse and single-mindedness among the three
main political parties to kick the Navy off the 52-square miles
of emerald mountains and golden beaches in Vieques. The Navy has
owned 75 per cent of the island since 1941.
``The topic of the Puerto Rican nationality and identity is
now a legitimate topic of discussion socially and politically,''
said Larry Kagan, a New York pollster.
``The death of the guard burst a bubble. There is a growing
consensus about wanting to define Puerto Rico's identity.''
Several dozen protesters have taken over the Navy's beaches
since April. Even the archbishop of San Juan, Roberto González,
has built a makeshift chapel on one of the beaches and planted
a 30-foot-deep concrete beam deep capped with the Virgin of Carmen.
When he celebrates mass, the rich come in their yachts from San
Juan and the poor come in their fishing boats.
"The Navy has done nothing to win the hearts of the Puerto
Rican people,'' says retired general Felix Santoni. ``As a result
there is a great disconnect between them and the Navy.''
Among the most shocking evidence in a thick report recently
issued by Puerto Rico's governor is the Navy's systematic destruction
of environmentally-unique marine areas (which are protected by
the Environmental Protection Agency), the use of plutonium-tipped
bullets (which is banned by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission)
and the use of napalm (which is against Navy and EPA rules).
The report says that the 9,200 Vieques residents have a 27
percent higher cancer rate than other Puerto Ricans.
Then there is a growing disillusionment with what many Puerto
Ricans interpret as rejection from Washington. After 10 years
of watching live congressional hearings on Puerto Rico via C-Span,
many here have lost hope of becoming the 51st state. Last year
the Senate rejected for the third time Puerto Rico's request to
join the Union if its residents so voted.
Another thorn in the Navy's side is the possible Senate bid
of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. President Clinton, who must
decide by September if the Navy stays in Vieques, may have to
give up the island for the sake of domestic tranquility. If she
is to win, Mrs. Clinton needs votes from New York's three million
Puerto Rican citizens.
So the Navy's hopes for a return to Vieques grow dimmer every
time the archbishop holds mass on the beach and with every presidential
house-hunting trip to Westchester County.
But no one should rush to count the days to Puerto Rico's independence.
As the Navy's hopes dim, the Army's are rising. Southcom, the
Pentagon's joint command for the Western Hemisphere, has brought
in several key units; and Roosevelt Roads remains the largest
U.S. base outside of the 50 states.
Both the Pentagon and Puerto Rican officials find it convenient
to point out that the problem is with the Navy, not the Army.
The Pentagon has 22,085 employees here and spends $687 million
The relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico,
which began 101 years ago during the Spanish-American War, is
sustained by federal subsidies of nearly $10 billion, mostly in
social assistance, Medicare and Medicaid. Of four million Puerto
Ricans, 1.3 million receive food stamps. And while today they
search for identity, 95 percent of Puerto Ricans have historically
voted against independence, including in last December's plebiscite.
Those living in Puerto Rico don't pay federal taxes.
"The U.S. needs this rock in the Caribbean and we need
their food stamps,'' explains Political Analyst Juan Manuel Garcia
Passalacqua, mindful that the accords on the federal subsidies
expire in 2002 and must be renegotiated.
"This will be solved in a very civilized and very Puerto
Rican manner: level of forces for level of funding.''