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The Navy Doesn't Need Vieques

by Pedro A. Sanjuan

May 2, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

MOUNT VERNON, N.Y. -- With its hard-line stance against the protesters on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques , the Clinton administration has apparently decided that maintaining the Democrats' much-vaunted image as the party of the people is less important than supporting the military establishment, which insists it must keep using Vieques for target practice whether the people who live there like it or not.

But there are alternatives to forcing Puerto Rican islanders to coexist with the live fire of Navy weapons training. And an earlier administration -- a Republican one at that -- showed itself willing to pursue them.

In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed an executive order that was read to cheering crowds on Culebra, another Puerto Rican island, ending its use as a Navy weapons range and acknowledging that ''the United States owes a great deal to the people of Puerto Rico for their past sacrifices on behalf of our common national security.'' Joining in the celebrations were Defense Department officials, the governor of Puerto Rico and Democratic Senator Henry M. Jackson.

Culebra, which then had about 1,000 inhabitants, is so small that I have walked around it at a leisurely pace in less than an hour. Melvin Laird, the secretary of defense in 1975, had strongly supported Puerto Rican requests for the end of the target practice on the island, as had three other well-known Republicans in the Defense Department, Robert Ellsworth, Lawrence Eagleburger and William Clements.

Vieques is larger -- 52 square miles, two-thirds of it under Navy ownership. But even on little Culebra, the Navy had to be dragged out of its ''vital'' range kicking and screaming. As head of a group working to find a way to get the Navy out, I found several uninhabited and accessible alternate target ranges, among them nearby Mona Island and Dog Island, all locations the Navy might shell to its heart's content. The Navy found them all unacceptable. Mona had a rare species of endangered turtles; Dog Island was British colonial property; others had other drawbacks.

We played along with the Navy for a while. Why argue about turtles vis-a-vis fishermen when we could be working toward getting the Navy off the island? We traveled to London and won approval to lease Dog Island if the Navy should need it.

During the machinations designed to facilitate the Navy's swallowing of its small but bitter pill, the national security staff, as well as Mr. Laird and his top staff people, all accepted as inevitable that once the Culebra situation was resolved, protests would be likely to begin on Vieques , and the training there would have to go next. Before any protests began, however, President Ford was out of office.

The Navy stalwartly maintained that it had the privilege to shell Puerto Rican beaches by right of conquest (1898 and all that) -- a right it has not claimed on, say, Martha's Vineyard, which would otherwise be an excellent substitute for Vieques , with equally lovely beaches.

The same uninhabited islands that I found still exist, close enough for Navy landing and target practice. And after the protesters have been duly removed from Vieques , it will still be within the power of the president to find a decent solution in dealing with human beings who have the right to walk around their native beaches.


Pedro A. Sanjuan served in the Defense Department under Gerald Ford and the Interior Departmrnt under Ronald Reagan.

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