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Vieques: Politics Aside
by Manuel A. Casiano
Chairman and Editor in Chief, Caribbean Business
October 28, 1999
Copyright © 1999 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.
The people of Puerto Rico, least 96% of them, have consistently
expressed their preference for a permanent relationship with the
United States. Many of them are wondering why the leaders of the
two major political parties which represent them have adopted
an adamant position in favor of the total withdrawal of the U.S.
Navy from Vieques and, possibly, from Puerto Rico altogether.
I'm one of them.
Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. It has been for more than 100
years. The vast majority of the residents of Puerto Rico are very
proud to be American citizens. They are equally proud of their
Puerto Rican identity. On the mainland, the same is the case with
Italian-, Irish-, Jewish-, African-, and Polish-Americans, among
many other ethnic groups.
I can understand those who support independence for Puerto
Rico wanting U.S. bases here closed. I don't agree with them,
but I understand their tactics. They are against anything American.
They even demonstrate when U.S. naval ships stop in San Juan.
They cringe at the presence of U.S. military personnel in uniform
on the streets of any city in Puerto Rico.
But those are the independentistas, the smallest political
group in Puerto Rico by far. They barely obtain 4% of the vote
in Puerto Rico's general elections every four years or in status
referendums. Militant fringe groups of different kinds are also
present in the States. And under the U.S. democracy that we are
all privileged to enjoy, their beliefs and free speech are allowed
However, the great majority of Puerto Ricans here and on the
mainland are proud to be Americans. Thousands of them have lost
their lives fighting for our country: the United States. More
than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have served in the U.S. armed forces
since the First World War. Four Puerto Ricans have been awarded
the Congressional Medal of Honor, and many others have received
other military honors.
I am one of those 200,000 Puerto Ricans who have served in
the U.S. armed forces. And while I'm certainly not a military
expert, I did my share of training under blank gunfire during
exercises in Parris Island, S.C. I also participated in extensive
training in Quantico, Va. All of this was part of my four years
of service in the U.S. Marine Corps during a period that included
the Korean War.
On the basis of that experience, I believe that as Americans
and Puerto Ricans we have to be totally and unwaveringly adamant
about the permanent cessation of live ammunition bombing on the
island of Vieques. I also believe, however, that as Americans
and Puerto Ricans we ought to continue to contribute to the national
defense effort by allowing the U.S. Navy to continue training
operations in Vieques and the supporting naval base operations
at Roosevelt Roads in Ceiba.
Continued bombing of Vieques with live ammunition by the U.S.
Navy is totally unacceptable. No community of U.S. citizens should
have to tolerate that. And none does, at least not under the conditions
prevalent in Vieques, where daylong live explosions from high
flying and diving Navy bombers and offshore ship-to-shore shelling
takes place in such close proximity to the civilian population.
Enough is enough. The Navy has been constantly bombing, strafing,
and shooting on Vieques all year long, year after year, for 58
years. Naval forces from other allied countries are also invited
to join maneuvers and conduct their training exercises in Vieques
every year. They also use live ammunition and participate in ship-to-shore
shelling with naval guns.
All of this military bombardment and shooting goes on sometimes
just two, three, or four miles from 9,300 men, women, and children
who live in Vieques-American citizens who have to bring up children
who struggle in school as they try to pay attention to teachers
while live ammunition are exploding and jet fighters and bombers
are diving and maneuvering overhead; American citizens who try
to sleep, work, have a decent quality of life and, yes, pursue
happiness with constant danger just a few miles away.
No community on the mainland endures the abuse of total land,
sea, and air military maneuvers with high altitude aerial bombing
and full, live, long range ship-to-shore shelling. Their governors,
senators, and congressmen, who have political power in Washington,
would be voted out of office if they tolerated the explosions
and dangers these exercises present on such a massive scale and
in such proximity to the civilian population as is the case in
Vieques. The patriotic rhetoric of Sen. Inhofe of Oklahoma notwithstanding,
it is now coming to light that the civilian population in the
vicinity of Fort Sill in his state is more than 15 miles away
from the actual heavy ordnance target range in that base, and
that the training exercises don't involve massive bombardment
from offshore battleships or high altitude aerial bombing within
one mile of the population as he claims.
Live ammunition firing on Vieques has to stop. The need to
train U.S. naval forces to defend the rights of Americans and
others around the world doesn't justify stepping all over the
rights of the 9,300 U.S. citizens of Vieques. This type of massive
training with live bombs and other ordnance doesn't even go on
in Parris Island, S.C., the basic training base of the Marine
Corps, also on the Atlantic. Yet that island is bigger than the
Navy training area on the island of Vieques.
But pushing out the Navy altogether isn't the answer.
I don't see any reason why maneuvers with blank ammunition
or with no ammunition at all couldn't continue on land in Vieques,
and with full live ordnance in the ocean, offshore from Vieques.
All that needs to be done is to prohibit live ammunition or bombardment
within 12 miles in any direction from the borders of the populated
civilian area, and then, of course, enforce the prohibition. This
12-mile limit would mean that no live ammunition would be used
on the island of Vieques at all.
We have to insist that the Navy accept this small cut-back
in its training capability and replace it with blanks within the
12-mile radius. Out at sea, it can use all the live ammunition
it wants, as it always has. Landing craft maneuvers on land with
blanks would be just as effective. The noise of blanks doesn't
travel more than a few hundred yards. Actually, most of the maneuvers
at Vieques take place offshore at distances up to 50 miles away
from the island.
The Navy's permanence in Vieques, however, must be based on
a whole new relationship with the municipality and with Puerto
The Navy should be forced to live up to its commitments under
the 1983 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the government
of Puerto Rico.
The Navy has conveniently ignored the agreement, and the government
of Puerto Rico has been negligent in its enforcement.
Everything agreed to in the MOU should be the basis for a new
agreement. The Navy has to contribute to the economic development
of Vieques as required under the MOU.
The commitment in fact was for more than $200 million dollars
over a period of four years. That was 16 years ago, and nothing
Navy maneuvers in Vieques have cost the fishermen of the municipality
unaccountable loss of income because of restrictions imposed during
Navy training on their legitimate right to pursue their trade.
That's not fair. These are individual, humble fishermen trying
to make a living with small craft, not large fishing companies.
In the future, the Navy should compensate these fishermen adequately
for all loss of income resulting directly from its continued use
of Vieques for training operations.
The Navy also can help the Corps of Engineers and the Seabees
to undertake projects on the island, such as the creation of an
artificial reef that will create substantial new commercial fishing
areas for the Vieques fishermen.
The Navy holds too much Vieques land, actually more than it
had a few decades ago. A lot of it isn't being used at all. As
has been proposed, the Navy should consolidate its holdings in
Vieques and turn over the western side of the island, which is
used for ammunition storage only. This would allow, among other
things, the much needed extension of the local airport's runway,
additional housing, and commercial and tourism development. Of
course, this land should be cleaned completely by the Navy of
all the possible contamination from spills and storage bunkers.
The Navy should also contribute to the development of infrastructure
in Vieques by building and expanding roads on the island to accommodate
increased traffic-some of it caused by the Navy itself and the
U.S. National Guard that also trains there. The Corps of Engineers
can certainly support a program like this.
And last but not least, it is imperative that the Navy be a
better, more caring citizen of the Vieques community. To say that
the Navy has a public relations problem is a gross understatement.
Apparently, it doesn't know what major U.S. corporations throughout
the country have learned-that it will have better relations with
the local community if it makes an effort to be involved as a
good, caring citizen.
The overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans are happy and proud
to be Americans-just as 34 million stateside Hispanics are proud
to be Americans. Contrary to what has been suggested recently,
the great majority of the people of Puerto Rico has always been
appreciative of the tremendous social and economic progress Puerto
Rico has enjoyed being part of the U.S. during the last 101 years.
Furthermore, we have always been ready to do more than our fair
share in defense of our nation. Puerto Rico per capita enlistment
into the U.S. armed services has been the second highest in the
U.S. when compared with all the states.
As we continue to support the national defense effort, we shouldn't
be influenced by the individual interests of some political leaders
or by the aspirations of the minute pro-independence movement
that opposes all U.S. military presence in Puerto Rico. We should
support continued Navy operations in Puerto Rico under the conditions
I have outlined.
But as we mature in our own understanding of the full dimension
of what it means to be a U.S. citizen, we should insist, as a
matter of civil rights and of equal protection under our U.S.
Constitution, that the Navy not use live ammunition on Vieques
ever again. How can the need of training sailors and Marines to
defend the rights of Americans and other foreign citizens around
the world possibly justify stepping all over the rights of 9,300
U.S. citizens in Vieques?