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No Middle Ground, Just People In The Middle On Vieques

The Island Residents' Emotions Run High And Often Are Divided Over What Stance To Take

by Deborah Ramirez

May 28, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico -- On their island just off Puerto Rico , the 9,300 people of Vieques live in the middle.

Their homes sit between the U.S. Navy's live-fire bombing range on the eastern end and a vast munitions dump on the western end.

Their politics sit between nationalists seeking independence from the United States and those who seek the promise of U.S. security, aid and possible statehood.

"This past year, everything has changed," said Manuela Santiago, 64, Vieques ' pro-statehood mayor for the past 16 years.

"There were no bombs or noise from warplanes flying over our homes. But there is anxiety because we don't know what's going to happen next. Vieques has become divided once more," the mayor said.

The peace ended early this month when FBI agents and federal marshals removed hundreds of protestors in squatter's camps who had held off Navy bombing exercises for a year. The civil disobedience was sparked by the April 1999 death of a Vieques security guard killed by two wayward bombs. The war games have now resumed.

"We're like rats in a cage," said Gloria Rivera Gonzalez, who at 82 supports herself on a walker. She reared six children in Vieques and now lives with her pro-Navy son and daughter-in-law. "When they were kids, we had to cover their ears at night so they could go to sleep because of all the noise from the maneuvers."

"He doesn't remember that," she said, referring to her son, Joel Velasquez, a 53-year-old disabled construction worker. Velasquez said he doesn't care if the Navy renews its practices.

"They can do it safely," he said, sitting in his breezy living room overlooking the water, with his 4-year-old granddaughter drawing pictures at his feet.

Velasquez tells his mother that if the protesters had their way, the U.S. military would pull out of Vieques and all of Puerto Rico , and the current U.S. commonwealth will become like other Latin American countries with guerrillas and civil wars.

His mother shoots back "We're not anti-American. We're anti- bombs."

The discussion is a sign of how the year of protest has opened debate.

People say that, for the first time, they feel it's acceptable to speak up against the Navy's presence.

"It's something everyone wanted to say, but no one dared," said Gladys Costa, 44, whose brother works for the Navy. "It meant that you were an independentista or a terrorist."

With the protest quelled and many outside activists gone home, residents are debating a referendum proposed for sometime after August. The Navy will pick the date.

The Clinton administration's plan gives the people of Vieques a choice of allowing the Navy to stay three more years and practice with inert bombs.

If approved, the Navy would transfer 8,200 acres of land in the west for, among other things, a new shorter-route ferry terminal.

Vieques also would receive $40 million for economic development, which includes projects such as expanding its airport.

Local fishermen, who have protested the Navy's presence for years, would be compensated for the first time for days when they can't fish because of military maneuvers.

Under a second choice, the Navy would be allowed to stay indefinitely and practice with live bombs. If approved, the townspeople would get the land and $90 million for development.

Meanwhile, the Navy has agreed to reduce practice from 200 to 90 days a year and not use live fire unless voters opt for the Navy to stay indefinitely.

"People have to be realistic," said Adelaida Martnez, 30, the wife of a local banker. "The Navy is not going to pack its bag and leave tomorrow because we say so."

Others view the referendum as an insult.

"It's too late for a vote," said Dr. Rafael Rivera Castao, a retired epidemiologist. "We're at the point of no return."

The strong opinions are playing out on this island where people don't lock their car doors and getting dressed up is about putting on shoes.

Oxen and horses frequently cross two-lane roads framed by trees. The main town of Isabel II, a kind of Latin Mayberry, has no McDonald's or Burger King restaurants, unlike nearby Puerto Rico .

"It's a nice place to raise children," said Costa, a municipal secretary who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and has brought up two sons in Vieques .

"But there's not much to do here. No movie theaters, the food is more expensive and there aren't many stores, which means you have to do your shopping in San Juan," Puerto Rico 's capital, she said.

A frequent complaint in Vieques , and throughout Puerto Rico , is that the Navy has been the main obstacle for Vieques 's economic development.

Vieques ' official unemployment rate is 26.3 percent.

The small island, which is about 22 miles long, has one factory, a General Electric plant that makes fuses and employs fewer than 100 workers. Most college graduates don't return to live in Vieques .

The local government employs about one-third of the labor force of 2,955 people, according to a special report on Vieques requested by the governor this past year.

The Navy provides about 120 civilian jobs, or 5 percent of the island's employment. Most civilians work as security guards or maintenance employees at Camp Garcia, where about 25 troops are permanently stationed.

Tourism provides less than 20 percent of Vieques ' jobs. This is the sector many say could grow if the Navy frees up two-thirds of the island.

Vieques has a handful of small hotels and inns, mostly owned and operated by Americans from the mainland United States. Vieques ' first 156-room mega-resort, Martineau Bay, is now under construction. Local residents and the newcomers say they don't want high-rise hotels and condos if the Navy pulls out. There's also some concern that land speculation will price low-income residents out of their island.

"We don't want the big hotels and casinos. We want eco-tourism that will preserve our simple way of life," said Carmelo Belardo, a Vieques assemblyman and member of the Puerto Rican Independence Party. "But we do want the tourism jobs."

Tourism could help lower Vieques ' 73 percent poverty rate, which is about 15 percent higher than Puerto Rico . About 60 percent of the population receives the local version of food stamps, which is financed by Congress.

A report requested by President Clinton this past year concluded that the Navy had failed to live up to a 1983 agreement to help improve Vieques ' economy. The Navy laid some of the blame on the Puerto Rican government for failing to spur investments and improve basic infrastructure.

One longstanding citizens' complaint is the amount of ferry travel time between Vieques and Puerto Rico . The Navy occupies the closet point to the mother island, about eight miles and a 20-minute boat ride away. Residents have a 22-mile route, about a one-hour ride. Locals complain that the longer ferry ride also holds back tourism and development.

"The life of Vieques depends on maritime transportation," said Assemblyman Belardo. "The Navy has strangled Vieques for too long."

"The Navy is here to protect everybody, including the people of Vieques ," said Navy spokesman Roberto Nelson, who is based in Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in Puerto Rico . "We all have to make sacrifices, and the Navy appreciates the things that Vieques has contributed."

Mayor Santiago says Vieques has made too many sacrifices. But she's also concerned that protesters from Puerto Rico may seek a confrontation with the military.

The U.S. government is going to lose its patience and this could throw the "referendum agreement out the window and give us Navy forever," she said. "We want peace to return to Vieques ."

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