Moving Beyond Resentment In Vieques

by John Marino

April 25, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOThe Navy will officially leave Vieques next week, ceding its lands to the Department of the Interior and transferring its training to stateside bases, mostly in Florida.

While the Navy announces massive layoffs and dismantles key operations at Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, at one time its largest base in the United States, a big celebration is being planned in Vieques that promises to be the hottest party in Puerto Rico. (Rumor has it that salsero Rubén Blades may even make an appearance.)

But May 1, 2003 still has the feel of a bitter divorce, and resentment runs along both sides of Camp García’s barb-wired fence that has cut off the eastern third of this island -- from the north coast to the south coast -- dividing military from civilian land.

Residents, who have had to share their island since the Navy expropriated roughly three-quarters of its 33,000 acres in the early 1940s, won’t drop their struggle until they gain control over former Navy lands and win a federal commitment to clean up the contamination from 60 years of bombardment.

Navy officials, meanwhile, appear intent on doing as little cleanup as possible and closing up Roosevelt Roads after being forced out of what for decades they have called their "crown jewel" of training grounds.

When military planners certified to Congress they had found alternative training sites to Vieques, a requirement to exiting the island municipality, they made sure to show their displeasure. "I acknowledge the situation with regard to Vieques with extreme disappointment – our sailors and Marines deserve better," said Marines Corps Commandant Gen. James Jones in a Dec. 31 memo to Navy Secretary Gordon England, released as part of the certification. "Some in Puerto Rico (particularly in Vieques) have demonstrated an appalling hostility towards sailors, Marines and their requirement for pre-deployment training; this at a particularly dangerous time in our nation’s history."

Also at the time, Navy Secretary Gordon England told Gov. Sila Calderon that "we will discontinue operations at Naval Station Roosevelt Roads associated with training on Vieques" after May 1, while Adm. Robert Natter, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, said that without its adjacent Vieques training ground, the base is a "drain" on taxpayer dollars.

The recent announcement of massive layoffs and an accompanying cut-down in operations at Roosy Roads indicates the Navy is setting up the base for closure in 2005, when the next round of base closings will be decided.

But Vieques residents counter that Navy officials have never understood their side of the story, or acknowledged the general harm they inflicted on residents. They are convinced that the Navy will close its Ceiba base as payback for Vieques as soon as possible, and are now running out of Vieques intent on spending as little money as possible on cleanup.

Residents, too, are genuinely concerned about their health, with a local cancer rate about 26 percent higher than that of the main island of Puerto Rico, according to the Puerto Rico Health Department.

Contamination fears were also spiked following the discovery that a sunken Navy destroyer, 900 feet off the Vieques coast, was used as a target ship for nuclear tests in the Pacific in 1958. Also raising concerns was the recent Pentagon acknowledgment that chemical weapons simulants were tested on island beaches in the 1960s and a previous admission that depleted uranium munitions were used on Vieques.

The truth is that both sides should put their resentment aside. To ensure Vieques’ future is well charted, the community needs to come up with a realistic set of demands, aimed at ensuring the protection of their health and the conditions on which an economic future can be sown. The military, meanwhile, needs to learn from its systematic neglect of 10,000 U.S. citizens near a vital installation over the course of decades. And they need to realize that is the overriding fact in the Vieques story – that they themselves, and not the residents of Vieques – are why they were driven from their prized bombing range.

The rancor on both sides just serves to cloud the legitimate issues surrounding the closing of the Vieques range. Also, it is obscuring two quite simple actions, which would probably require concessions from both sides, that would address both the needs of the viequenses and serve as a model for future base closings.

The Navy needs to address the legitimate health concerns of residents by expanding its testing of groundwater, soil and air for contamination. Navy data, which serves as the parameters for current cleanup plans, is based on contaminated background levels, according to community and environmental groups. Even if their claims don’t stand up, the Navy should be willing to expand its testing, since much of its data is a based on a comparison of waters near its eastern bombing range with those near a west end weapons disposal facility.

The federal government should also cede some of its east end land over to development as well. Keeping much of the eastern lands as a wildlife refuge – the current plans for the entire eastern end – is a good idea. But clearly Vieques residents should be allowed to develop some of these lands after enduring life in an economy that has been stifled by the military control of the island for decades. This will have the equally important function of ensuring a higher standard of cleanup on these lands.

Expanding environmental testing could go a long way to providing Vieques residents with reassurances that contamination is not impacting their public health, while ceding some prime east end real estate would help ensure a bright economic future.

That should be an important consideration for the Navy, who for most of its 60 years on Vieques was welcomed by residents as a good neighbor, even though the military force often acted as anything but that.

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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