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THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Navy Outstays Its Welcome On Vieques
by John Lindsay-Poland, Jackie Santos
November 22, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE. All Rights
Since 1941, the Navy has maintained a bombing range on the
populated island of Vieques, off the eastern edge of Puerto Rico
. Residents of Vieques, which is part of Puerto Rico, along with
Puerto Ricans across the political spectrum, have had enough of
the Navy and are calling for its departure. The problem now rests
with President Clinton, who is expected to decide soon whether
the Navy will continue the bombing there.
The Navy's record in Puerto Rico has been atrocious. In Vieques
, the Navy expropriated 26,000 of the island's 33,000 acres from
residents, and tourism and local fishing have suffered badly.
A population of 9,400 suffers a cancer rate 27 percent higher
than Puerto Rico as a whole, believed to be the result of heavy
metals and toxic compounds leached from ordnance into the air
and drinking water, according to Puerto Rican epidemiologists.
When two 500-pound bombs missed their target by nearly two
miles on April 19, killing a local civilian guard, it was one
in a series of Navy acts that destroyed its relations with Puerto
In May, the Navy disclosed that it had illegally fired 263
projectiles containing depleted uranium onto Vieques "by
mistake," and that only 57 of the shells had been recovered.
Elsewhere, the Navy base at Roosevelt Roads on the main island
has been drawing water from a Puerto Rican river since 1985 without
a permit, leading Puerto Rico 's Department of Natural and Environmental
Resources in July to order the Navy to cease using the water.
Puerto Rican activists who have set up camps on the Vieques
impact area since April discovered that the Navy had destroyed
lagoons through bombing and that road construction has cut the
lagoons off from the sea. In August, the Environmental Protection
Agency issued a notice that it will deny a permit allowing the
Navy to continue bombing the lagoons because it "has not
demonstrated the ability to comply with the permit."
The Navy claims that Vieques is the only site where the Atlantic
Fleet can practice amphibious landings together with air-to-ground
and sea-to-ground bombing exercises. But the Navy has not conducted
an amphibious landing against hostile forces since the Korean
War. Moreover, the U.S. Pacific Fleet is able to conduct its training
without a site that combines the capabilities of the range in
The Navy has rented out use of Vieques to allied military forces
from NATO countries and Latin America, reportedly earning $80
million last year. A Web site that was operated by the Navy until
Puerto Rican officials protested advertised Vieques as a '`one-stop
shopping`' location for military activities.
We recently visited the Vieques impact area, and the Navy's
destruction of land there is apocalyptic. The area's intense natural
beauty contrasts sharply with the lunar-like craters made by bombs
and the shrapnel and ordnance lying everywhere.
The Navy wants to use Vieques in early December for a battle
group scheduled to sail to the Persian Gulf in February. A panel
appointed by Secretary of Defense William Cohen recommended continued
use, with a phase-out of the Navy in five years.
But it is difficult to find people in Puerto Rico who believe
the Navy will abide by such an agreement once the bombing begins
again. After decades of deception, the Navy has zero credibility
there. Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Rossello plans to sue if the
Navy resumes bombing, and U.S. religious leaders have pledged
to commit civil disobedience.
The Atlantic Fleet that trains its five-inch guns on Vieques
is purportedly defending democracy in the Persian Gulf, but it
neglects to observe those principles in Puerto Rico. As President
Clinton wrote in July, "They don't want us there. The Navy
can find a way to work around it."
The president should heed the wishes of Vieques residents,
and turn Vieques back to the people who live there.