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Sun-Sentinel, Ft. Lauderdale, FL



April 25, 1999
Copyright © 1999 the Sun-Sentinel

Amid palm trees and some of the Caribbean's most pristine beaches, residents of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques also have lived with bombs and live ammunition practices for more than half a century.

The U.S. Navy owns two-thirds of Vieques, a tiny island 50 miles east of San Juan, and home to the only U. S. bombing base in the Atlantic. For years, various governments of Puerto Rico have unsuccessfully petitioned, lobbied and begged the Navy to end its bombing exercises, which damage the environment and threaten Vieques' 9,400 civilian residents.

On Monday, the threat became real when 500-pound bombs were accidentally dropped on a military communications tower, instantly killing David Sanes Rodriguez, a 35-year-old security guard and Vieques resident. The Navy is investigating the death, which occurred when two F-18s missed their targets during a bombing practice.

Sanes Rodriguez's death has renewed an outcry against the Navy's use of Vieques from Puerto Ricans of all political stripes. Gov. Pedro Rossello, who advocates statehood for Puerto Rico, has asked President Clinton for an immediate halt to the bombings pending the investigation's outcome.

Vieques has been an important training tool for the U.S. military since it purchased a large chunk of the island in 1941. U.S. troops and armies and navies from other countries have conducted joint war games in Vieques to prepare for military engagements, including which include the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983.

But a civilian population in Vieques, sandwiched between the Navy's Camp Garcia and the Naval Ammunition Facility, has suffered the consequences.

Besides rattling residents' nerves, the bombings have damaged fishing sites, polluted beaches and deterred economic development.

It's time for the Navy to find a new bombing and shelling practice base, preferably one where people don't live. It's difficult to picture such a Navy site near a small U.S. town or city. The residents wouldn't tolerate it, nor would their elected officials or their representatives in Congress. But Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, must tolerate this, apparently because its residents, who are U.S. citizens, don't vote for anyone in Congress or the White House. The Navy's use of Vieques in this context is a throwback to the worst days of colonialism.

Puerto Rico 's only non-voting member of Congress, Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barcelo, has tried to get legislation approved that would transfer 8,000 acres of Navy land to the Vieques municipal government.

So far, he has watched his Vieques Land Transfer Act die in committee. Romero Barcelo is planning another stab at the bill, and now is the time for Congress to pay attention to this long-neglected problem. The transfer of military land would not completely end the bombings in Vieques, but it would lessen the military maneuvers' harmful impact on residents.

At the very least, this is the start of a solution for Vieques, and a fitting eulogy for Sanes Rodriguez.

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