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Vieques: Politics Aside

by Manuel A. Casiano
Chairman and Editor in Chief, Caribbean Business

October 28, 1999
Copyright © 1999 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

The people of Puerto Rico, least 96% of them, have consistently expressed their preference for a permanent relationship with the United States. Many of them are wondering why the leaders of the two major political parties which represent them have adopted an adamant position in favor of the total withdrawal of the U.S. Navy from Vieques and, possibly, from Puerto Rico altogether. I'm one of them.

Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. It has been for more than 100 years. The vast majority of the residents of Puerto Rico are very proud to be American citizens. They are equally proud of their Puerto Rican identity. On the mainland, the same is the case with Italian-, Irish-, Jewish-, African-, and Polish-Americans, among many other ethnic groups.

I can understand those who support independence for Puerto Rico wanting U.S. bases here closed. I don't agree with them, but I understand their tactics. They are against anything American. They even demonstrate when U.S. naval ships stop in San Juan. They cringe at the presence of U.S. military personnel in uniform on the streets of any city in Puerto Rico.

But those are the independentistas, the smallest political group in Puerto Rico by far. They barely obtain 4% of the vote in Puerto Rico's general elections every four years or in status referendums. Militant fringe groups of different kinds are also present in the States. And under the U.S. democracy that we are all privileged to enjoy, their beliefs and free speech are allowed and protected.

However, the great majority of Puerto Ricans here and on the mainland are proud to be Americans. Thousands of them have lost their lives fighting for our country: the United States. More than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have served in the U.S. armed forces since the First World War. Four Puerto Ricans have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and many others have received other military honors.

I am one of those 200,000 Puerto Ricans who have served in the U.S. armed forces. And while I'm certainly not a military expert, I did my share of training under blank gunfire during exercises in Parris Island, S.C. I also participated in extensive training in Quantico, Va. All of this was part of my four years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps during a period that included the Korean War.

On the basis of that experience, I believe that as Americans and Puerto Ricans we have to be totally and unwaveringly adamant about the permanent cessation of live ammunition bombing on the island of Vieques. I also believe, however, that as Americans and Puerto Ricans we ought to continue to contribute to the national defense effort by allowing the U.S. Navy to continue training operations in Vieques and the supporting naval base operations at Roosevelt Roads in Ceiba.

Continued bombing of Vieques with live ammunition by the U.S. Navy is totally unacceptable. No community of U.S. citizens should have to tolerate that. And none does, at least not under the conditions prevalent in Vieques, where daylong live explosions from high flying and diving Navy bombers and offshore ship-to-shore shelling takes place in such close proximity to the civilian population.

Enough is enough. The Navy has been constantly bombing, strafing, and shooting on Vieques all year long, year after year, for 58 years. Naval forces from other allied countries are also invited to join maneuvers and conduct their training exercises in Vieques every year. They also use live ammunition and participate in ship-to-shore shelling with naval guns.

All of this military bombardment and shooting goes on sometimes just two, three, or four miles from 9,300 men, women, and children who live in Vieques-American citizens who have to bring up children who struggle in school as they try to pay attention to teachers while live ammunition are exploding and jet fighters and bombers are diving and maneuvering overhead; American citizens who try to sleep, work, have a decent quality of life and, yes, pursue happiness with constant danger just a few miles away.

No community on the mainland endures the abuse of total land, sea, and air military maneuvers with high altitude aerial bombing and full, live, long range ship-to-shore shelling. Their governors, senators, and congressmen, who have political power in Washington, would be voted out of office if they tolerated the explosions and dangers these exercises present on such a massive scale and in such proximity to the civilian population as is the case in Vieques. The patriotic rhetoric of Sen. Inhofe of Oklahoma notwithstanding, it is now coming to light that the civilian population in the vicinity of Fort Sill in his state is more than 15 miles away from the actual heavy ordnance target range in that base, and that the training exercises don't involve massive bombardment from offshore battleships or high altitude aerial bombing within one mile of the population as he claims.

Live ammunition firing on Vieques has to stop. The need to train U.S. naval forces to defend the rights of Americans and others around the world doesn't justify stepping all over the rights of the 9,300 U.S. citizens of Vieques. This type of massive training with live bombs and other ordnance doesn't even go on in Parris Island, S.C., the basic training base of the Marine Corps, also on the Atlantic. Yet that island is bigger than the Navy training area on the island of Vieques.

But pushing out the Navy altogether isn't the answer.

I don't see any reason why maneuvers with blank ammunition or with no ammunition at all couldn't continue on land in Vieques, and with full live ordnance in the ocean, offshore from Vieques. All that needs to be done is to prohibit live ammunition or bombardment within 12 miles in any direction from the borders of the populated civilian area, and then, of course, enforce the prohibition. This 12-mile limit would mean that no live ammunition would be used on the island of Vieques at all.

We have to insist that the Navy accept this small cut-back in its training capability and replace it with blanks within the 12-mile radius. Out at sea, it can use all the live ammunition it wants, as it always has. Landing craft maneuvers on land with blanks would be just as effective. The noise of blanks doesn't travel more than a few hundred yards. Actually, most of the maneuvers at Vieques take place offshore at distances up to 50 miles away from the island.

The Navy's permanence in Vieques, however, must be based on a whole new relationship with the municipality and with Puerto Rico.

The Navy should be forced to live up to its commitments under the 1983 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the government of Puerto Rico.

The Navy has conveniently ignored the agreement, and the government of Puerto Rico has been negligent in its enforcement.

Everything agreed to in the MOU should be the basis for a new agreement. The Navy has to contribute to the economic development of Vieques as required under the MOU.
The commitment in fact was for more than $200 million dollars over a period of four years. That was 16 years ago, and nothing has happened.

Navy maneuvers in Vieques have cost the fishermen of the municipality unaccountable loss of income because of restrictions imposed during Navy training on their legitimate right to pursue their trade. That's not fair. These are individual, humble fishermen trying to make a living with small craft, not large fishing companies. In the future, the Navy should compensate these fishermen adequately for all loss of income resulting directly from its continued use of Vieques for training operations.

The Navy also can help the Corps of Engineers and the Seabees to undertake projects on the island, such as the creation of an artificial reef that will create substantial new commercial fishing areas for the Vieques fishermen.

The Navy holds too much Vieques land, actually more than it had a few decades ago. A lot of it isn't being used at all. As has been proposed, the Navy should consolidate its holdings in Vieques and turn over the western side of the island, which is used for ammunition storage only. This would allow, among other things, the much needed extension of the local airport's runway, additional housing, and commercial and tourism development. Of course, this land should be cleaned completely by the Navy of all the possible contamination from spills and storage bunkers.

The Navy should also contribute to the development of infrastructure in Vieques by building and expanding roads on the island to accommodate increased traffic-some of it caused by the Navy itself and the U.S. National Guard that also trains there. The Corps of Engineers can certainly support a program like this.

And last but not least, it is imperative that the Navy be a better, more caring citizen of the Vieques community. To say that the Navy has a public relations problem is a gross understatement. Apparently, it doesn't know what major U.S. corporations throughout the country have learned-that it will have better relations with the local community if it makes an effort to be involved as a good, caring citizen.

The overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans are happy and proud to be Americans-just as 34 million stateside Hispanics are proud to be Americans. Contrary to what has been suggested recently, the great majority of the people of Puerto Rico has always been appreciative of the tremendous social and economic progress Puerto Rico has enjoyed being part of the U.S. during the last 101 years. Furthermore, we have always been ready to do more than our fair share in defense of our nation. Puerto Rico per capita enlistment into the U.S. armed services has been the second highest in the U.S. when compared with all the states.

As we continue to support the national defense effort, we shouldn't be influenced by the individual interests of some political leaders or by the aspirations of the minute pro-independence movement that opposes all U.S. military presence in Puerto Rico. We should support continued Navy operations in Puerto Rico under the conditions I have outlined.

But as we mature in our own understanding of the full dimension of what it means to be a U.S. citizen, we should insist, as a matter of civil rights and of equal protection under our U.S. Constitution, that the Navy not use live ammunition on Vieques ever again. How can the need of training sailors and Marines to defend the rights of Americans and other foreign citizens around the world possibly justify stepping all over the rights of 9,300 U.S. citizens in Vieques?

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