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Vieques Faces Uncertain Future

by Michelle Faul

April 19, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES , Puerto Rico (AP) - Maria Garcia Ledesma remembers her grandfather telling stories about the Navy taking over his small patch of farming land, wiping out his livelihood and forcing the family to leave his beloved Puerto Rico .

That was in the 1940s, when thousands of people on Vieques lost their land to Navy appropriations and abandoned the island. Garcia spent her childhood on nearby St. Croix and did not visit Vieques until 13 years ago. But she was so charmed that she never left.

"I love the peace and the quiet," she said.

Except for when navy bombs would crash into the 21-mile-long island, shattering windows and startling residents of Isabel Segunda, the town sandwiched between the bombing range on the island's east and the munitions depots on the west.

The unhappy story of Vieques was well-known in Puerto Rico , but not elsewhere. The Navy's exercises were deemed crucial to U.S. national security, a prerogative few dared challenge.

Until April 19, 1999.

A year ago, a Marine Corps F-14 jet training for Kosovo duty dropped two 500-pound bombs off target, hitting an observation post and killing David Sanes Rodriguez, a 35-year-old civilian security guard.

Years of frustration exploded in protests that appear to have changed the course for Vieques .

Exercises were suspended, and after months of negotiations President Clinton agreed that the Navy would leave within three years unless residents choose in a referendum for it to stay. The exercises are to resume within weeks, but with dummy bombs.

That wasn't good enough for activists, in particular a group led by independence party leader Ruben Berrios that has occupied parts of the bombing range for almost a year. Or for Garcia.

"I don't want the Navy here. Nobody wants the Navy here," she said.

Vieques has united Puerto Ricans as rarely before, encompassing not only the small independence movement but also many supporters of U.S. statehood.

"What the death of David Sanes did was to shake up the conscience of our people," said schoolteacher Miriam Soba.

The five tent camps of protesters inside the bombing range have drawn support from church and labor groups. Visitors, despite Navy warnings about trespassing - and the possibility of unexploded ordnance on the grounds - have included the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Ricky Martin and this week Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Vieques residents say the Navy has stunted their tourist industry, destroyed fishing grounds, coral reefs and mangrove estuaries and harmed endangered species such as the peregrine falcon and hawksbill turtle.

The Navy admits it failed to keep an agreement to help develop the island but maintains it is the only place where the Atlantic Fleet can hold simultaneous air, land and sea operations. It has been used to prepare for every U.S. conflict since World War II and earns the Navy $16 million a year in fees from foreign countries that practice here.

Lives could be lost on the battlefield without such training, officers say.

The life lost here - Sanes' - has divided his family. Sanes' father participated in a march last year asking the Navy to stay. But Sanes' sister, Myrta, plans to accompany activists to her brother's graveside today.

Garcia, meanwhile, blames the Navy bombings for the throat infections and skin allergies suffered by her 14-year-old daughter, Yaira.

"I'm always running to the doctor with her," Garcia said. "I believe it comes from the contamination."

She said the Navy condemned her grandfather, a war veteran, to a life in exile.

"He always spoke about coming back," she said.

He died 10 years ago, without realizing his dream.

Related article: Puerto Rico Marks Bomb Anniversary

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