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Solidarity Work Around Vieques and Puerto Rico

In many ways the situation in Vieques, and in Puerto Rico is analagous to the situation in Okinawa. Activists there have been protesting the ongoing use of the lands there for military exercises and large areas in Puerto Rico are used for military bases. The Okinawa Peace Network of Los Angeles has actively supported the Puerto Rican people in their push for the removal of the U.S. military bases there and continues to support the people of Vieques.

May 2, 2003
NY Times

Navy Leaves a Battered Island, and Puerto Ricans Cheer
By DANA CANEDY

VIÉQUES, Puerto Rico, May 1 — For most of the more than 9,000 people of Viéques, the official end today of Navy bombing exercises after more than 60 years was cause for an islandwide celebration of the conclusion of a painful era and the hope for a new beginning.

"People are very jubilant," said Ardelle Ferrer, a 51-year-old artist who has been celebrating all week and is building a sculpture in honor of the island. "Everyone is so happy seeing something that seemed so impossible."

Viéques officials were to begin four days of activities celebrating the Navy's departure in the first minutes of today, but the party started early when Gov. Sila M. Calderón arrived on Wednesday afternoon and addressed already jubilant residents. Dozens of locals and residents from the main island, many wearing shirts reading "Celebration of Peace on Viéques," clapped and cheered when the governor arrived at Isabel Segunda's town square to the sounds of a steel band.

"This is a moment of great happiness and profound emotion," Governor Calderón said. "Together, we achieved the end of the bombing."

Surrounded by Puerto Rican government officials and 20 local schoolchildren, Governor Calderón said the Navy's exit "marks the beginning of a new era of peace and tranquility" for Viéques. She said, "This is a triumph for all of the people of Puerto Rico, as well as our brothers and sisters in the United States."

In an interview on Monday, Governor Calderón said that while political pressure had helped end the exercises, President Bush deserved credit for keeping his word to stop them. "It is a testimony to the president's commitment to protect human rights," she said. Her administration was setting aside $50 million for public works improvements here, she added.

For more than 60 years, the Navy used a 900-acre firing range on the eastern tip of the tiny island for bombing exercises. For decades it insisted that the exercises could not take place elsewhere, because the area offered a unique opportunity to conduct ship-to-shore gunnery practice and aerial bombings.

The people of Viéques and the Puerto Rican commonwealth bitterly complained that the drills were dangerous. The practice generated international criticism in 1999, when two errant bombs killed a civilian Puerto Rican security guard.

Thousands of people protested the exercises, including politicians, actors and civil rights activists from the mainland. Under political pressure, President Bush announced in June 2001 that his administration would end the bombing practices today. The military will now conduct the exercises in several southern states, including Florida.

Dámaso Serrano, mayor of Viéques, said the island was a safer place today.

"Thanks to the unity of the people of Viéques, of the people of Puerto Rico, of the people of the United States, we achieved the exit of the Navy and a definite peace for the people of Vieques," Mr. Serrano said. Still, he said a battle would continue to see that the land was cleaned up and returned to the municipality.

Rafael Rivera Castaño, a doctor whose father, Antonio Rivera Rodríguez, was mayor of Viéques from 1949 to 1973, echoed the current mayor's concerns.

"We have to get working again," said Mr. Rivera, who believes Navy activities are responsible for poor health among the island residents.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group, spent a month in jail in 2001 for trespassing during a protest on the island. Mr. Kennedy said the Navy's withdrawal was a mixed blessing. "The problem is they're leaving the poison behind," he said.

"There are tens of thousands of unexploded bombs," Mr. Kennedy said. "Fish are contaminated, crabs are contaminated, seagrass is contaminated. The soils are contaminated with toxins. The fact that they're leaving the island would be great, if they would clean up."

The Navy said in a statement that it had transferred the property to the Department of the Interior, and that it would be cleaned up.

"The Interior Department is required to develop the land for use as a wildlife refuge, with the area used for exercises with live bombs to be designated a wilderness area and closed to the public," the statement said. It said $2.3 million has been designated this year for the Interior Department for the property.

The Environmental Protection Agency said today that it was considering a request by Governor Calderón to add Viéques to the Superfund list of contaminated sites intended for cleanup.

Many people Viéques residents said today that they would worry tomorrow about the environmental issues and the future of the island. Today, they were content to rejoice in a victory they said was too long in coming.

"Ever since I came here to Viéques, my husband told me Viéques needed people who loved the land to rescue it," said Mariá Velazquez, 58, who has lived here since 1963 and took part in a celebratory march through the streets today.

"We've been rescuing it ever since," Ms. Velazquez said. "I feel like I'm walking on air."

Nestor Guisherd, 33, a school guidance counselor on the island, said he was taking part in the festivities despite his disappointment that the military had not relinquished ownership of the land to Puerto Rico. "I'm happy for one thing: the emotion of the town," Mr. Guisherd said. "I celebrate for the emotion of the people."

The marches, demonstrations and celebrations spread across this tiny island, as people danced, prayed, waved flags and cried, some still in disbelief. Most of the events took place without incident, but early today, as the military presence officially ended, hundreds of demonstrators broke through the gates of Camp Garciá, the Navy site. They tore down a guard house and destroyed two trucks and a boat.

"I can't believe what's going on out there," said Ricardo Jordán, 46, an island resident. Pointing to a news organization's van, he said: "They're sending it out all over the world. People will think that's all that's going on."

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who spent 90 days in prison beginning in May 2001 and fasted for 40 days to protest the Viéques military exercises, attended some of the ceremonies."We won a significant battle," Mr. Sharpton said, "one people thought we would never win.".

Burr Vail, the owner of the Hacienda Tamarindo hotel on Viéques, was glad that the military is gone. But he worries that the island he loves will soon be overrun with tourists.

"The bad news is that the Navy has dominated two-thirds of the land for two-thirds of the century," said Mr. Burr, whose hotel is full this week with people who traveled to the island to celebrate the withdrawal. "The good news is that the Navy has dominated two-thirds of the land for two-thirds of the century."

The Navy's presence has has preserved the island to the point where it's "one of a kind in the Caribbean," Mr. Burr said.
"It is not overdeveloped like others," he said. "The island will now be free to choose its own destiny. It's a tremendous change, and a tremendous responsibility."


Fri, Jan 10, 2003

Navy to End All Vieques Training on May 1

By Charles Aldinger

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Ending years of bitter contention, the U.S. Navy said on Friday it will halt battle training on Vieques Island off Puerto Rico on May 1 and transfer the exercises to bases in the southeastern United States and areas at sea.

The announcement followed a decision by President Bush in mid-2001 to end a half-century of Navy and Marine Corps live-fire training on the tiny island off Puerto Rico's east coast.

Navy officials said training for aircraft carrier battle groups and Marine forces headed abroad would in the future be shared chiefly by Eglin and Pinecastle Air Force Bases in Florida and at two Marine bases in North Carolina -- Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point Air Station.

Much of the training will also be conducted at sea and using a new computer simulation system known as "Virtual at Sea" (VAST), the officials told Reuters.

Navy Secretary Gordon England said the service also plans to spend $400 million in the next few years to improve facilities at other training areas and to simulation technology.

The Navy's notification, which will go to the Senate Armed Services Committee, means that exercises scheduled to begin in Vieques next week involving the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt battle group will likely be the last for east coast naval units on the island.

DEATH SPARKED PROTESTS

The Navy's use of the 33,000-acre (13,360-hectare) island off Puerto Rico for target practice has sparked widespread protests since a civilian security guard was killed in a botched April 1999 bombing run by Marine Corps jets.

Hundreds of protesters were arrested after the death unleashed years of pent-up local resentment against the Navy and sparked a drive across the territory of Puerto Rico for the service to leave the small island town that the Navy has used as a bombing range for 60 years. Protesters argued that the war games damaged the environment and harmed the health of the island's 9,300 residents.

Due to the controversy stirred by the bombing death, the Navy's recent exercises on Vieques have involved only dummy bombs and shells without explosives.

The Navy, which owns two-thirds of Vieques, had insisted repeatedly after the 1999 accident that Vieques' geography was perfect for simultaneous air, sea and land maneuvers.

But Puerto Rico Gov. Sila Calderon strongly opposed continued training on Vieques and vowed to arrange a permanent halt.

Navy officials said that, under an agreement between officials in Washington and San Juan, the service's territory on the island would be turned over to the Interior Department.


June 14, 2001
New York Times

Bush Announces Halt to Vieques Exercises

By DAVID E. SANGER and CHRISTOPHER MARQUIS

WASHINGTON, June 14 -- President Bush said today that the Pentagon will halt all military exercises and aerial bombing runs on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques by May 2003, reversing the Navy's long-running insistence that no other locale was suitable for battle simulations.

"My attitude is that the Navy ought to find somewhere else to conduct its exercises, for a lot of reasons," the President said in Goteborg, Sweden, where he is meeting with European leaders. "One, there's been some harm done to people in the past. Secondly, these are our friends and neighbors and they don't want us there."

"And so I appreciate the fact that the Defense Department and the Navy responded," Mr. Bush continued, "and I have made the statement loud and clear that within a reasonable period of time, that the Navy will find another place to practice and to be prepared to keep the peace. It's the right agreement. I applaud the Defense Department and the Navy for reaching that agreement."

The decision was made on Wednesday at a White House meeting that included President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, who has frequently voiced concerns that the mounting protests against the Navy operations and the arrest of protesters seeking to block the exercises was costing Mr. Bush vital support among Hispanics. Also attending was Gordon England, the Secretary of the Navy, who told lawmakers Wednesday night that he would recommend that the Navy stop using the range by 2003, officials said.

Another exercise involving the dropping of inert bombs is scheduled to begin on Monday, and a senior administration official said "we wanted to get the word out quickly" that the administration would end the exercises, though not as quickly as Puerto Rican officials have demanded.

The White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, insisted today that political factors did not influence Mr. Bush's decision. "No, it was a decision made on the merits," he told reporters in Sweden. In Washington today, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he was "in full agreement" with the decision. "I don't know how I could be more specific," Mr. Rumsfeld said, insisting that the decision would not affect decisions on other training sites, like Okinawa, that have been subject to protest.

In April, about 180 protesters, including four prominent New York politicians, were arrested for disrupting the Vieques exercises, and more arrests seem likely in coming days. The Rev. Al Sharpton is serving a 90-day prison sentence for protesting on the island, while three other politicians received 40-day sentences: New York Assemblyman Josť Rivera, City Councilman Adolfo Carrión Jr. and Roberto Ramirez, the Bronx Democratic Party Chairman.

The announcement today appears intended to short-circuit Puerto Rican plans to hold a referendum next month on the Navy's operations on the island, which contains 33,000 acres and has about 9,300 residents. While the referendum would have no legal effect on the Navy, Gov. Sila Calderón, until now a harsh critic of the military's refusal to end the exercises, has used it to build political pressure on the Bush administration -- a tactic that seems to have worked. Ms. Calderón signed a bill into law this week authorizing the July 29 referendum, though it is now unclear whether that will go ahead. Some critics of the Navy's activities said Wednesday that they would continue their crusade until the Navy agreed to halt all maneuvers at Vieques immediately.

"If they're saying 'we will continue bombing till 2003,' that would be unacceptable," said Representative Jose E. Serrano, a New York Democrat who was born in Puerto Rico.

Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York, another opponent of the bombing, said, "It's like me telling you that I'm going to stop beating you in the head with a hammer in two years." He called the two-year deadline a "very embarrassing thing" for Governor Calderón, who has campaigned heavily for a Navy pullout. Governor Calderón released the following statement in Spanish on Wednesday: "The information being disseminated this afternoon over the military maneuvers in Vieques is not official." Her office, she added, "should not make any statements about it for the moment."

A defense official said the Pentagon began seriously studying ways to leave Vieques after President Bush said in an interview broadcast in early May by Univision, the Spanish-language network, that the United States needed to find another base for its Atlantic live-fire training. The official said that after May 2003, the Navy would return the Vieques range to the Department of Interior, which would then determine how to clean up or otherwise dispose of the land that is uninhabitable because it is littered with shrapnel and unexploded shells. The Navy has conducted exercises on the eastern tip of the island for more than 50 years. Military officials have maintained that live-fire training at Vieques, including both aerial bombing and ship-to-shore shelling, is the only way to verify that its aircraft and ships are combat-ready.

Many in the Pentagon, already unhappy with the Bush administration's failure thus far to dramatically increase the defense budget, are likely to complain that the Vieques decision was made for political reasons to the detriment of combat readiness. The Pentagon has frequently called the Vieques range, which is also used by the Marine Corps, "the best in the Atlantic." But Mr. England, a longtime executive in the defense industry, came into his job with a clear mandate to solve the problem.

A senior White House official said on Wednesday that Mr. England will "get outside experts, including some retired officers, to determine alternative sites that the Navy can use." Also involved in Wednesday's meeting was Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz, who had promised to take a new look at the issue after the Clinton administration refused to act on Puerto Rico's demand that the exercises be suspended.

In April, a federal judge refused to block naval bombing on Vieques, saying there was insufficient evidence that the exercises would irreparably harm residents. At least one study has shown a high incidence of heart problems among the fishermen and children living on the island, chiefly an unusual disorder known as vibroacoustic disease. It is linked to loud noises like those from jet engines or deep explosions.

But the judge, Gladys Kessler, said the Navy had made "an implied promise" not to resume the bombing until completion of studies into possible links between noise and heart ailments among island residents. She also said that the bombing would violate a new Puerto Rican law against noise pollution. Two referendums on the Navy's activities in Vieques have been scheduled for later this year. The first vote, in July, is being held by the government of Puerto Rico to determine whether residents want the Navy to stay in Vieques, to remain but stop using live ammunition in its exercises, or halt all training and leave immediately. A November referendum is to be held by the Navy itself.

Mr. Serrano said the White House is hoping to obviate the need for either referendum and avoid a political embarrassment. "Everybody suspects the vote would be a landslide for the Navy to get out altogether," he said.

The decision today could also affect operations in the Pacific. The Marine Corps is under similarly intense pressure on the Japanese-owned island of Okinawa, where training exercises have long raised major protests. Now Mr. Bush will have to explain to Japan why a decision made for an American territory would not also apply to American training on foreign soil.

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