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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 a year.

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.''

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