The Associated Press
Navy Takes Vieques Offensive To Web
July 21, 2000
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- The Battle of Vieques has escalated into cyberspace.
Fed up with what it calls ``untruths'' and ``outrageous statements,'' the U.S. Navy launched a bilingual Internet site Friday in an offensive to retain its 50-year-old Atlantic fleet training ground on Puerto Rico's Vieques island.
Activists are trying to stop the Navy's use the range, claiming bombing practice harms residents, and Puerto Rico's government is trying to persuade Vieques voters to kick the Navy out in a referendum expected next year.
President Clinton ordered the referendum in a deal to end a standoff between protesters and the Navy, which has used Vieques for battle-conditions practice before sending U.S. servicemen abroad.
The Navy hopes to convince Vieques' 9,400 residents that it can be a good neighbor and will be 20 years down the road. Initial reaction to the Web site has been mixed, said Navy spokesman Lt. Jeff Gordon.
``You've done a great job of getting the facts out to the public!'' raved one browser in an e-mail to Gordon.
``Get the hell out of my country ... noooooooooooowwww!'' said another.
``There have been a lot of outrageous statements and untruths made about the Navy,'' Gordon said. ``This is the first step to correct the record.''
``The Navy has been a political scapegoat for too long,'' he said.
On the site's ``Fact vs. Fiction'' page, the Navy notes that there has never been a study of islander's health based on empirical data. Critics often say Vieques residents have a much higher incidence of cancer than other Puerto Ricans.
Rear Adm. Kevin Green, commander of the Navy's Southern Command, was posted to Puerto Rico to head the public relations effort, which Navy officials acknowledge had been less than stellar.
Green has spoken to civic groups and published columns in the English-language San Juan Star. Spanish-language columns are planned for other, more widely read newspapers, said Gordon, the Navy spokesman.
On Vieques, where the average household income is $6,400, there may not be many computers for residents to read the Navy's message. Gordon said he hoped every resident would read its contents, getting it from friends or from old-fashioned hard copies.
Gordon said more than 90 percent of the 200 demonstrators arrested in anti-Navy protests during June bombing exercises were not Vieques residents. He also noted that more than 6,000 Puerto Ricans serve in the Navy.
Most of those arrested were charged with trespassing on the Vieques range during the demonstrations. Exercises had been suspended in April 1999 when a civilian security guard was killed in an accidental bombing, sparking protests laced with anti-American sentiment.
On Friday, a U.S. judge sentenced 24 independence activists to time already served in jail for trespassing. The activists, arrested in the last two to three weeks, had refused to post bail, saying they didn't recognize the U.S. court.
``To correct the record we obviously have a long way to go,'' Gordon said. The Web site ``is a 'holistic' approach to this.''
Navy officials, however, were chagrined this week when San Juan Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves send a letter of support to the jailed activists.
``Christ is with you in jail in a particularly dramatic fashion, exactly as he was before Pontius Pilate, representative of a colonial power that didn't respect the identity of the people,'' Gonzalez Nieves said.
Navy officials said they were ``disappointed'' by his remarks.
On the Net:
Navy site on Vieques: http://www.navyvieques.navy.mil
Vieques activist groups: http://www.viequesvive.com/
THE U.S NAVY AND VIEQUES: FACT VS. FICTION
There have been a number of unfortunate misconceptions which have received widespread media attention and have ultimately led to the current tense situation on Vieques between the Navy and the civilian population. This section of the website is dedicated to "correcting the record" on these allegations.
The Navy, Puerto Rico's own, serves people. Our first obligation in training our forces is that we do no harm to our neighbors in the process.
Any action that harms our neighbors is intolerable. The Navy is responsible for ensuring that we do no harm. We must always consider the effects of training on our people whether it is in Vieques, or elsewhere in the United States.
Honesty dictates that we all look objectively and clearly at the effects visited on Vieques. Allegations must be examined to find answers that are scientifically verifiable. If credible evidence appears, we are compelled to look at it, understand what we see, and change our actions accordingly. We also have the obligation to communicate what we are doing and why we are doing it.
Allegations related to health and safety concerns, the environment, and economic development have cast the Navy in a terrible light. Unfortunately, this process has not been a fair one, but one where the loudest voice often carries the day. Solving real problems requires sobriety, science and straight answers, rather than falling back on convenient scapegoats or politically motivated excuses.
First, the residents of Vieques never have been in danger from the training activities conducted by our military at the weapons range. This training complex is located on the far Eastern tip of Vieques, more than eight miles from the nearest town. In nearly 60 years of range operations, not one civilian living or working off the range has ever been killed or placed at risk.
The Vieques Weapons Range, also on the eastern tip of the island, comprises approximately 900 acres, less than 3 percent of the total land-mass of the island.
This small weapons range is the only location on the island where bombs and naval gunfire are used for training. The other 97% has often been praised by tourist magazines and newspaper reviews for its pristine beaches and wonderfully preserved lands. More than half of the 22,000 acres owned by the Navy in Vieques is managed in a conservation status with extensive programs for endangered species. The Navy provides security for endangered species against poaching and boat traffic, and devotes significant resources to developing scientific knowledge and databases concerning such species.
Symptomatic of the type of allegations against the Navy was the charge of high Vieques infant mortality by a reputable medical professional society in Puerto Rico.
The report, which received wide media attention on the island and negative publicity in the Continental United States, claimed that the rate was nearly double that of mainland Puerto Rico, with 19.4 deaths per 1,000 births in Vieques, compared with 12.7 deaths per 1,000 births for the same period. The day after a surge of negative publicity again rocked the Navy, Puerto Rico Health Secretary Carmen Feliciano charged the group with "lying to the public" because three years in the middle of the study period, 1996-1998, were omitted. If it was not for her moral courage and professional integrity in stepping forward and confronting her peers, the infant mortality issue would remain yet another unfounded serious allegation against the Navy.
The unofficial unemployment rate for Vieques (9.2 percent) is lower than that of the main island of Puerto Rico (10.9 percent), according to the Puerto Rican Department of Labor's report last April. This notwithstanding, the Navy over the past two decades has undertaken more than 20 economic development projects to assist the residents of Vieques.
The Navy has been at the forefront of Hurricane relief for decades, with efforts such as providing fresh water the Vieques community, clearing roads and bridges, and a number of other related recovery efforts.
The burden of hosting defense facilities is not limited to the residents of Vieques alone. Vieques is one of 56 Department of Defense live-fire ranges. Other communities in the United States have residents living closer to a weapons range that the residents of Vieques. The civilian population of Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for example, lives a mere 1 1Ú2 miles away from the target zone, while the towns surrounding the major military live-fire ranges of Eglin Air Force Base and Pinecastle, both in Florida are 7 and 8 miles away from the live-impact areas, respectively.
As the Navy works to improve our relationship with the people of Vieques, the numerous allegations meant to discredit and often demonize the service have done a gross injustice to what is morally right. In repairing the Navy's relations with the community in Vieques and Puerto Rico, we need to start by correcting the record.
Let's work together openly, fairly, honestly on a basis of mutual respect.
For further details on facts and allegations, go to www.navyvieques.navy.mil/news.htm. Additionally, there have been a number of highly questionable allegations regarding the Navy's one time accidental firing of 263 depleted uranium bullets on the inner range in Vieques 8-10 miles away from the civilian population. These allegations have appealed to the emotions of those participating in the debate over Vieques, however they have been roundly criticized been scientists as having little basis in fact. To get the latest scientific information on depleted uranium, please go to www.gulflink.osd.mil/library/randrep/du/cover.html. The Navy is continuing to work closely with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which is supervising the clean-up efforts on the range in Vieques.