The Bittersweet Vieques Victory

by John Marino

January 17, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOPuerto Rico may have "won" a major victory last week when the Navy certified that it had found training alternatives to replace its disputed Vieques bombing range after May 1.

But with the massive Naval Station Roosevelt Roads in Ceiba facing possible closure, and the federal government still retaining title to about half the land in Vieques, that victory is at best tasting bittersweet this week.

Make no mistake about it. The decision by the Navy to stop using its bombing range on Vieques should be considered a major victory -- Puerto Rico got the Navy to shut down its "crown jewel" of training ranges against great odds.

But as the saying goes "you should be careful of what you wish for."

While the Navy has stopped bombing in Vieques, doubts remain over the extent of the cleanup planned for the offshore island’s live-fire range and related areas, where tons of bombs have been dropped over six decades.

Little additional land will be available for development on the offshore island, as the federal government will still own 16,000 acres, nearly half the island. That’s important because the Navy’s control of land on the island has repeatedly been blamed for the lack of economic development there.

Most of the land is slated to be turned into a wildlife reserve by the Interior Department, a move that bars development outright. Only a small part of the land on the west end, ceded to the municipality, can be developed under existing federal law.

And the "wildlife reserve" designation placed on much of the land may sound environmentally friendly, but it actually requires a lower level of cleanup than if the land were to be used for development purposes.

Without the use of Vieques, the necessity of the Roosevelt Roads navy base has been called into question.

Adm. Robert Natter, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, made that quite clear on the day the Navy said it had training alternatives ready to use following May 1.

"Without Vieques, there is no way I need the Navy facilities at Roosevelt Roads. It’s a drain on Defense Department and taxpayers’ dollars," he told the Associated Press.

Navy Secretary Gordon England's letter to the Gov. Calderón, informing her of the Navy's certification of alternative sites to training in Vieques, said "we will discontinue operations at Naval Station Roosevelt Roads associated with training on Vieques."

The base puts some big bucks into the island, particularly vital for the undeveloped east coast where it is located.

The Navy says the base puts more than $300 million into the island economy. The latest figures, according to the Navy, show 2,394 military personnel at the base, 1,374 civilians working there and 4,634 dependents living there. An additional 995 people are employed on the base as independent contractors.

Because many of the personnel live off the base, its closing could send the local real estate market into a tailspin.

"My $120,000 house is now worth $80,000," said one Fajardo resident after reading Natter’s comments.

Given the tough times the Puerto Rico economy is going through, the base’s closure is sparking even greater fears among many home and business owners, especially along the island’s east coast.

And the New Progressive Party is sure to pounce on the specter of the closure and make it a campaign issue in the 2004 elections. It’s not only the economic fall-out from the base’s closure, but the fact that one of the last significant U.S. military installations on the island will disappear, which will strike fear into many a statehooder and conservative popular that the Americans are lowering their flag from Puerto Rico.

That’s one reason that Calderón, in her first public appearance since the Navy made official it will leave Vieques, said her administration will lobby to keep the Navy at Roosevelt Roads.

"The people of Puerto Rico have no interest in the closing of the Roosevelt Roads base. The government of Puerto Rico is interested in having this base stay in Puerto Rico, for all of its economic benefits," the governor said.

But the governor should know that you can’t have you cake and eat it too.

Since the Puerto Rico government began its push to end Navy training in Vieques, the threat of the closure of Roosevelt Roads closure was always real.

But former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, saying that the Vieques situation was one of human rights, said that an end to Navy bombing had to take precedence over any economic considerations.

When Calderón came into office, she portrayed the Vieques issue as primarily a health issue also above economic concerns.

Will the Navy depart Roosevelt Roads following its withdrawal from Vieques? The decision will not come until 2005, when the next round of Base Realignment And Closing is slated to take place.

The loss of the Vieques training ground undoubtedly lessens the usefulness of the base. But the Navy still has an "outer range" consisting of 200,000 square miles of open ocean in the area that has been used for weapons testing, fleet maneuvers and submarine training. There is also an extensive radar and communications network in place. And the base is also used by other federal entities, from Army Special Operations units to the Coast Guard to the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Whether or not the Navy sets sail from Roosevelt Roads, however, won’t be known until after the next gubernatorial election.

That will free the NPP and its candidate -- whoever that might be -- to attack Calderón for fueling the fire created by the Vieques issue for trying to end Navy training earlier than the May 1, 2003 date first established by her predecessor. She did this by filing lawsuits, waging an aggressive public relations campaign against the Navy and taking other actions which may have needlessly aggravated relations between Puerto Rico and the federal government.

If the Navy does go, Calderón will be vulnerable to charges that she was responsible for losing Roosevelt Roads -- even if the Navy’s final decision will likely stem from its own internal needs more than anything that anyone in San Juan might have done or said.

And her stated intention to lobby for the Navy to stay at the base for economic reasons reaks of pandering after the importance she placed on ending bombing in Vieques.

She should take a tip from the Navy, which always saw Vieques and adjacent training grounds as an integral part of the Roosevelt Roads complex.

The government of Puerto Rico still has a lot work to do on Vieques, and it needs to balance what’s needed to be done there with the fall-out the loss of the bombing range will have on Roosevelt Roads.

It could be that a diminished Navy presence at the base would mean Puerto Rico would be better off fighting for equitable closure terms than in trying to keep the base open with a lessened contribution to the local economy.

That’s a fresh lesson from Vieques that apparently has not sunk in yet.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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