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Pro-Navy Side Feels Ignored

by Deborah Ramirez

May 14, 2000
Copyright © 2000 SUN-SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

On one enchanted evening, I was invited to hear the other side about Vieques and the U.S. Navy.

The scene reminded me of South Pacific. A group of pro-Navy Vieques residents invited me into their home on a lush green hill overlooking a bay. The trade winds were blowing and the sun was setting on the valley below.

Luis Sanchez, a Navy civilian security guard, and half a dozen supporters told me why they don't believe live-fire military exercises are hurting their tropical enclave, roughly twice the size of Sanibel Island.

"These are all lies," said Sanchez, who has organized several pro- Navy rallies. "What has taken peace away from Vieques is not the military, it is the protesters."

The conversation occurred about three weeks ago, shortly before some 200 mostly pro-independence activists were removed from the Navy's bombing range.

The pro-military group was upset because the media, especially the Puerto Rican press, had not paid much attention to them. They were disturbed about how Vieques had become a symbol for the independence cause, which they oppose. They argued passionately, in Spanish, that as Americn citizens they were offended by efforts to oust the Navy from their back yard.

I understood their feelings. But I couldn't understand why they weren't more concerned about the impact of half a century of bombings and shellings on the environment, not to mention on the economy. Vieques is poor and the fact that the Navy owns two-thirds of the land leaves no room for growth. There are concerns about contamination, and Vieques ' cancer rate, which has been reported higher than the overall cancer rate for Puerto Rico .

The response seemed like denial. There was no contamination from war games, I was told. All the talk about cancer is an exaggeration.

The group told me how the Navy has been the first on the scene to help after a deadly hurricane. I heard how military volunteers distribute toys for poor children at Christmas time.

I applaud the Navy for its hurricane-related aid. But if I had to choose, I would prefer the children of Vieques get no toys and no bombs.

I told the group that if this were happening in the United States, Americans would not think twice about complaining. No one would be stoic if their homes shook, their schools rattled, their sleep was interrupted from the sound of exploding bombs and roaring fighter jets, and their economy suffered. People would demand their representatives in Congress do something about it, quick. Surely, the residents of Vieques have the same right to defend themselves.

I got blank stares.

Then one of the ladies said something that made me understand the bigger picture, in their minds.

"The military use of these lands is our contribution," for U.S. aid, said schoolteacher Matilde Pena.

They were grateful for their jobs, even though the Navy employs only 5 percent of Vieques ' workforce. Most people in the room either worked or were related to someone who worked for the Navy. Their mothers and grandmothers had earned a living washing and ironing military uniforms.

But they were talking about more than jobs. They were grateful for U.S. food aid that had seen them through tough times or federal scholarship funds that had allowed them to send their children to college.

Puerto Rico , a U.S. commonwealth, receives federal aid without paying federal taxes. Its residents don't vote for the president or voting members of Congress, and have served in every U.S. war since World War I. Puerto Rico is also the 10th-largest market for U.S. goods in the world.

For these viequenses, the Navy represents security. If this meant being inconvenienced or being exposed to something that might be harmful, that was the price that had to be paid.

For a brief moment, I saw colonialism staring me in the face. I had never really stopped to look at its full ugliness.

What made it worse was that I liked the people to whom I was speaking. I found them earnest, decent, kind, hard-working and conservative. They reminded me of my own family in Puerto Rico .

Statehood is one remedy for Puerto Rico 's colonial dilemma. But statehood cannot be an act of mendicancy.

These Navy supporters were the other side of the Navy opponents, the ones who don't want to compromise on a proposed referendum that could signal the military's departure in three years from Vieques . I found many people in this group as principled and decent as many people in the pro-Navy camp. Vieques deserves the cooperation of both.

Deborah Ramirez can be e-mailed at or phoned at 954-356-4623.

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