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The Record, Northern New Jersey
Warning Shot In Puerto Rico Heard Close To Home
December 13, 2000
The rest of us may still be hung up on the last election, but in the New York and New Jersey Puerto Rican community, there is a new ballot to think about, one that may be as defining for them as a people as those infamous Florida ballots are for the rest of us.
Ironically, just like most other Americans who have no say but are all affected by what happens in Florida most Puerto Ricans, wherever the may live, feel the same way about the island of Vieques.
Unless they live on Vieques, they will have no say in the balloting that will determine whether the U.S. Navy can continue using the island as a bombing range. But in the court of public opinion, they will have a lot to say even those from as far away as New York and New Jersey.
"Just like the Navy is going to put its energy and resources into convincing the people of Vieques to let them stay, the Puerto Rican leadership in the United States is going put its resources and its energy into helping the people of Vieques stop all military exercises on that island," New Jersey Puerto Rican activist Guillermo Beytagh- Maldonado said upon hearing that a date for the Vieques balloting has finally been set.
On Tuesday, when the Navy set Nov. 6, 2001, as the date for the election, it was like sending a shot across the bow declaring the beginning of a campaign against those who have made Vieques the symbol of their struggle for Puerto Rican national identity and independence from the United States.
The Navy was allowed to set the date under an agreement between President Clinton and Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello. But ironically, this is one race in which the Navy will be one of the campaigners.
Beytagh-Maldonado said Puerto Ricans expect Navy officials to spend a lot of taxpayer money convincing Vieques residents that they can be better neighbors in the future.
"They are going to spend a lot of resources and money on this," Beytagh-Maldonado said. "They are already spending money in Vieques, building a new health clinic and fixing the roads. They are trying to buy us out, especially the people of Vieques, but those people know what's going down."
Under the Clinton-Rossello agreement, if Vieques residents vote to expel the Navy from the island, the Navy will have until May 2003 to leave. If they allow the Navy to stay, training may resume with live ammunition something the U.S. personnel have refrained from using since a Puerto Rican civilian guard at the base, David Sanes Rodriguez, was killed by a 500-pound bomb dropped off target by a U.S. Marine Corps jet in April 1999.
That was the climax of decades of friction between the Navy and the 9,400 civilian residents of Vieques, some of whom were joined by other Puerto Ricans in a camp-out protest that kept the United States from bombing and landing troops on Vieques for about a year.
Since the protesters including some from New York and New Jersey were forcibly cleared out of the range by U.S. marshals in May, the Navy has conducted several exercises, but using only non-explosive "dummy" bombs.
In setting the date for balloting, Navy Secretary Richard Danzig seemed to be keeping open how to phrase the second option that will be posed to the people of Vieques in November. "At least 90 days in advance of the referendum , my office will specify the terms for the referendum 's second option, which would permit training past May 1, 2003," Danzig wrote Rossello in a letter dated Monday.
If the Navy perceives that live ammunition will kill its chances of staying in Vieques, the Navy may still define the referendum 's second option in a kindler and gentler (inert bombs) way. After all, the Navy claims Vieques is an irreplaceable training ground that is vital to U.S. national defense.
But Beytagh-Maldonado doesn't believe it. From his perspective, the Navy wants to continue damaging Vieques environment, economic growth, and the health of its residents. "It seems to me that the Navy is really looking forward to continue bombing with live ammunition," he said.
Nevertheless, Puerto Rican community leaders of all political persuasions, here and on the island, are united like never before in demanding that the Navy leave Vieques. And they are calling on President Clinton to issue an executive order stopping all military activities on the island now. "He can do that," Beytagh-Maldonado said. "And in fact there are a lot of people expecting him to do that." He said that if Clinton withdraws the Navy now, it would be harder for George W. Bush, if he prevails and becomes president, to bring the Navy back to Vieques.
Many Puerto Ricans fear that the Navy is simply buying time until a new president, perhaps friendlier to the military, can cut a new deal that will enable the Navy exercises to continue on Vieques.
To Beytagh-Maldonado and other Puerto Rican activists, waiting for the Nov. 6 balloting is a sham.
"The referendum has already happened and everybody has spoken," he said, noting that by rejecting the pro- statehood mayor of Vieques and the pro- statehood candidate for governor in recent elections, Puerto Ricans have already sent Clinton a clear message.
In the long run, this is a fight in which Puerto Ricans expect to beat the Navy. "I just came back from Puerto Rico and I sensed a good feeling about what's happening there," Beytagh-Maldonado said. "People are optimistic. The state-hooders were swept out of office and that's a referendum on Vieques right there." Staff Writer Miguel Perez's e-mail address is perez(at)NorthJersey.com