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Date: Tue, 25 May 1999 14:22:19 -0500 (CDT)
Organization: AOL http://www.aol.com
From: raulmax@aol.com (Raulmax)
Subject: U.S.Navy out of Vieques, PR
Article: 65418
Message-ID: <bulk.20598.19990526061601@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

US, Puerto Rico Relations Strained

By James Anderson, Associated Press, 25 May 1999

NAVAL STATION ROOSEVELT ROADS, Puerto Rico (AP)__Enraged by a bombing-range accident that killed a civilian guard, Puerto Rican leaders are demanding the U.S. Navy end live-fire exercises in their territory.

The Navy says it needs the range on the small island of Vieques (vee-EH-kehs) because it is the only Atlantic training ground where U.S. military forces can simultaneously bomb, shell and stage amphibious landings.

Many Puerto Ricans have long opposed bombardment on the island, whose civilian population is squeezed into a small strip running across the middle. The deadly accident April 19 reinforced the feelings of many that Washington considers them second-class U.S. citizens.

In a rare show of unity, leaders of Puerto Rico's independence, statehood and U.S. commonwealth parties are urging Congress to stop the Navy's use of live ammunition at Vieques. Leaders of the small independence movement want the Navy out completely.

The issue may be inflamed by the ongoing reexamination of Puerto Rico's complex ties to the United States. Last week, a Senate committee convened to study the inconclusive December referendum here in which statehood was narrowly rejected.

David Sanes Rodriguez, 35, was killed inside the firing range when two 500-pound bombs dropped by a Navy FA-18 fighter-bomber missed its target by 1 1/2 miles.

Since his death, a small band of protesters has occupied a scrubby, pockmarked outcrop of the Vieques range, which is littered with dozens of unexploded bombs, artillery shells and grenades. The Navy has let them stay, hoping to avoid messy arrests.

The protest underscores Puerto Rico's tempestuous relationship with the U.S. military -- one that began when Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles seized the island during the Spanish-American War in 1898.

More than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have proudly served in the U.S. armed forces since World War I. Hundreds have been killed.

The military owns more than a tenth of Puerto Rico's 3,435 square miles and spends close to $600 million a year here.

The sprawling Roosevelt Roads naval station in eastern Puerto Rico was a key staging ground for Hurricane Georges relief last fall, and its aircraft fly around the clock to detect clandestine drug shipments to the island.

But the military has rarely felt entirely welcome in this U.S. territory, whose residents don't pay federal taxes and don't vote for president, but were eligible to be drafted.

In the 1960s, violent student protests led to the ouster of ROTC at the University of Puerto Rico, and noisy demonstrations prompted the Navy to abandon a firing range on another small island, Culebra, in 1975. Independence groups bombed five Air National Guard fighter jets, and a bloody 1979 ambush of a U.S. Navy bus killed two sailors.

The Navy took over two-thirds of Vieques in 1940 and displaced more than 3,000 people, about half the population then on the 22-mile-long island.

Today the population is 9,300, sandwiched in a 6-mile-wide strip the Navy doesn't occupy. Many blame the Navy for the island's lack of development and its unemployment rate of around 50 percent.

They say the Navy should find another place to bomb.

"It's unacceptable that in all of the United States, Vieques is the only military installation used by the Navy for maneuvers with munitions so close to a populated area," Carlos Romero Barcelo, Puerto Rico's nonvoting congressional delegate, said in a letter to President Clinton last Tuesday.

No other site is available, said Capt. Jim Stark, a carrier aviator and commander of Roosevelt Roads, which helps administer the Vieques range.

U.S. Navy aviators have used Vieques to train for combat in Vietnam, Grenada, Libya, the Persian Gulf and the Balkans, he noted.

"The beauty of Vieques is you can have Marines charging ashore, submarines trying to sink you, surface ships firing, airplanes dropping bombs, SEALS on the ground directing stuff like this, tanks maneuvering ashore, artillery in the air and it can all be happening at once," Stark said.

No other East Coast range has that capability, Stark said. And there is only one live-fire training area in the West -- California's San Clemente Island. Mainland ranges are boxed in by civilian populations and environmental concerns, he said.

All that should apply here, too, complain Vieques residents, who for years have put up with war games just seven miles from their homes.

They want to know why they have Puerto Rico's highest cancer rate, and suspect it's the years of bombing.

The Navy is sure to fight a request by Puerto Rico's governor to at least use dummy munitions instead of high explosives in military exercises.

Independence activists, meanwhile, vow to end what for them is a painful chapter in U.S. colonialism.

"They want to avoid a confrontation now, when public opinion is against them, with the purpose of resuming their abuse as soon as it is convenient," said commonwealth Sen. Ruben Berrios. "The Independence Party will not allow the Navy to avoid that confrontation."