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Navy Outstays Its Welcome On Vieques

by John Lindsay-Poland, Jackie Santos

November 22, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE. All Rights Reserved.

Since 1941, the Navy has maintained a bombing range on the populated island of Vieques, off the eastern edge of Puerto Rico . Residents of Vieques, which is part of Puerto Rico, along with Puerto Ricans across the political spectrum, have had enough of the Navy and are calling for its departure. The problem now rests with President Clinton, who is expected to decide soon whether the Navy will continue the bombing there.

The Navy's record in Puerto Rico has been atrocious. In Vieques , the Navy expropriated 26,000 of the island's 33,000 acres from residents, and tourism and local fishing have suffered badly. A population of 9,400 suffers a cancer rate 27 percent higher than Puerto Rico as a whole, believed to be the result of heavy metals and toxic compounds leached from ordnance into the air and drinking water, according to Puerto Rican epidemiologists.

When two 500-pound bombs missed their target by nearly two miles on April 19, killing a local civilian guard, it was one in a series of Navy acts that destroyed its relations with Puerto Rican society.

In May, the Navy disclosed that it had illegally fired 263 projectiles containing depleted uranium onto Vieques "by mistake," and that only 57 of the shells had been recovered.

Elsewhere, the Navy base at Roosevelt Roads on the main island has been drawing water from a Puerto Rican river since 1985 without a permit, leading Puerto Rico 's Department of Natural and Environmental Resources in July to order the Navy to cease using the water.

Puerto Rican activists who have set up camps on the Vieques impact area since April discovered that the Navy had destroyed lagoons through bombing and that road construction has cut the lagoons off from the sea. In August, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice that it will deny a permit allowing the Navy to continue bombing the lagoons because it "has not demonstrated the ability to comply with the permit."

The Navy claims that Vieques is the only site where the Atlantic Fleet can practice amphibious landings together with air-to-ground and sea-to-ground bombing exercises. But the Navy has not conducted an amphibious landing against hostile forces since the Korean War. Moreover, the U.S. Pacific Fleet is able to conduct its training without a site that combines the capabilities of the range in Vieques.

The Navy has rented out use of Vieques to allied military forces from NATO countries and Latin America, reportedly earning $80 million last year. A Web site that was operated by the Navy until Puerto Rican officials protested advertised Vieques as a '`one-stop shopping`' location for military activities.

We recently visited the Vieques impact area, and the Navy's destruction of land there is apocalyptic. The area's intense natural beauty contrasts sharply with the lunar-like craters made by bombs and the shrapnel and ordnance lying everywhere.

The Navy wants to use Vieques in early December for a battle group scheduled to sail to the Persian Gulf in February. A panel appointed by Secretary of Defense William Cohen recommended continued use, with a phase-out of the Navy in five years.

But it is difficult to find people in Puerto Rico who believe the Navy will abide by such an agreement once the bombing begins again. After decades of deception, the Navy has zero credibility there. Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Rossello plans to sue if the Navy resumes bombing, and U.S. religious leaders have pledged to commit civil disobedience.

The Atlantic Fleet that trains its five-inch guns on Vieques is purportedly defending democracy in the Persian Gulf, but it neglects to observe those principles in Puerto Rico. As President Clinton wrote in July, "They don't want us there. The Navy can find a way to work around it."

The president should heed the wishes of Vieques residents, and turn Vieques back to the people who live there.

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