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Tens Of Thousands March In Puerto Rico To Protest Vieques Accord; Religious Leaders Oppose Navy Training Plans

February 22, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Summoned by Puerto Rico 's top religious leaders, more than 80,000 people staged one of the biggest demonstrations in years here Monday to protest the planned resumption of U.S. Navy training on the island of Vieques.

Carrying banners bearing the portrait of Jesus and reading, "We Want Peace," along with red, white and blue Puerto Rican flags, the protesters staged a silent march along a one-mile stretch of San Juan's Las Americas Expressway, cordoned off by hundreds of police officers.

Called by top religious leaders, including the heads of Puerto Rico's Catholic and Methodist churches, the "Peace for Vieques " march repudiated an agreement between Gov. Pedro Rossello and President Clinton to resume limited training on Vieques, the Navy's prize Atlantic fleet bombing range. Police Chief Pedro Toledo estimated the crowd at 85,000.

"We are showing the consensus in Puerto Rico's heart in favor of peace and justice," said San Juan Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves. "It is a signal of hope and confidence."

Organizers depicted the protest as nonpolitical, though many members of this U.S. territory's tiny Independence Party participated.

Church leaders' increasing involvement in anti-Navy protests has angered many pro-statehood politicians here. They fear the protests could harm efforts to make Puerto Rico - recipient of $11 billion in federal funds annually - the 51st U.S. state.

"It is anti-American, anti-Navy and does not contribute to the serious work that Gov. Rossello has done to obtain the Navy's exit," said House speaker Edison Misla Aldarondo.

Clinton and Rossello agreed last month to allow the Navy to resume limited training using inert bombs. The pact calls for a referendum, likely to be held in 2001, that will give Vieques residents two choices:

- Allowing the Navy to resume use of the range on its own terms - including the use of live bombs.

- Requiring the Navy to cease all training by May 1, 2003. Until then, however, the Navy could use the dummy bombs.

Rossello's opponents - joined by an unusually united front of religious leaders - attacked him for abandoning a pledge to stop all bombings.

Carlos Romero Barcelo, Puerto Rico 's nonvoting delegate to Congress, last week called religious leaders "separatists." Gonzalez Nieves last year blessed a protest camp erected by Catholic activists inside the bombing range.

Many marchers Monday bristled at the politicians' criticism.

"I'm here because it's important to keep the peace in Vieques, and there doesn't have to be any other reason," insisted 52-year-old Marta Figueroa, of the southern town of Juncos.

"Even though we're veterans and have done our service, I want to tell the president of the United States that we want peace for Vieques," said Modesto Santiago Alvarado, 72, a U.S. Army veteran of Korea and Vietnam.

For 60 years, the Navy has used Vieques, with the island's 9,400 residents sandwiched between an ammunition storage zone and the bombing range.

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