Washington Outlook

Puerto Rico Mayors Protest Military Bombing Exercises in Off-Shore Municipality of Vieques

By Justin O'Brien
May 15, 2000

Puerto Rican protests against the U.S. Navy's continued use of the off-shore island of Vieques came to a head May 4 as Carolina (PR) Mayor Jose Aponte, two U.S. congressional representatives and 224 individuals were peaceably arrested by federal marshals and Puerto Rican police.

Mayor Aponte and the other protesters were removed from the naval bombing range on Vieques in advance of renewed military assault and bombing exercises after a year-long moratorium following the bombing death of a civilian U.S. Navy employee. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, led by Conference President Denver Mayor Wellington E. Webb, has supported Puerto Rico's mayors in their stance that Vieques should no longer be used for the dangerous and destructive maneuvers. The Navy's use of Vieques for bombing and training exercises has received heavy public criticism and scrutiny since April of last year.

Conference Position on Vieques

In October last year, Conference President Webb, Lynn (MA) Mayor Pat McManus, Wilmington, (DE) Mayor James Sills Jr. and Bridgeport (CT) Mayor Joseph Ganim participated in a press conference in San Juan City Hall. The mayors were in Puerto Rico attending an annual Urban Water Summit of the Conference of Mayors, hosted by Mayor Calderon. During the conference, Webb pledged Conference of Mayors support for the position of San Juan Mayor Sila Calderon which urged the Navy to end their involvement in Vieques and cease their use of the island for live-fire bombing exercises. Calderon is the mayor of the capital city of Puerto Rico and a Trustee of the Conference. On returning to the mainland, Webb wrote a letter to President Clinton on behalf of The U.S. Conference of Mayors urging the immediate cessation of the exercises in Vieques and the return of the lands to the control of local authorities.

During the Conference's annual winter meeting in Washington in January, Conference President Webb, during a plenary session address again reiterated the Conference's support of policy opposing further Navy bombing on Vieques. The conflict between the U.S. Navy and Puerto Rico has received widespread attention in the United States and throughout the world as protesters occupied Navy property on the island. In his remarks Webb described the conditions in Vieques as "unacceptable for the mainland United States and unacceptable for the people of Puerto Rico and Vieques."

Prior Conference Policy Since 1970

The U.S. Conference of Mayors has supported prior policy on this issue concerning naval use of a neighboring Puerto Rican island, Culebra, since 1970  when then San Juan Mayor Carlos Romero Barcelo brought the issue of naval exercises there to the attention of the Conference. Similar circumstances surrounding the use of Culebra for live-fire bombing and shelling exercises took place, also resulted in Puerto Rico-wide protests at that time. Ultimately, official investigations and hearings at that time resulted in the cessation of all live-fire exercises there. While military assault training was completely discontinued on Culebra and the property returned to local control, until last year it has continued unabated in Vieques. Romero is presently the island's non-voting delegate in Congress.

The protesters have been demonstrating against the continued use of Vieques for these live-fire military assault exercises which for decades have included explosive-laden bombs and other live ammunition and ordnance. Training had been suspended on Vieques since April last year when the death of David Sanes Rodriguez, a civilian security guard at the site, resulted from an inaccurate bombing run by an F-18 where two bombs were targeted at the observation tower where Rodriguez was keeping watch. Protesters began to occupy the site shortly afterwards as increasing civil discontent with the Navy's treatment of Vieques spilled over.

The tragic death of Sanes resulted in unprecedented island-wide unity and cross-party political cooperation in efforts and calls for an end to the use of Vieques by the Navy. For decades, these exercises have been conducted on the bombing range on the island over 180 days a year within 8 miles of the civilian population. The military has been involved in Vieques since 1941 when the lands were appropriated, to be used later by the Navy.

Also among those arrested during the peaceful removal of demonstrators on May 4 were two Puerto Rican congressional representatives Nydia Velasquez (NY) and Luis Gutierrez (IL). Earlier, Vieques Mayor Manuela Santiago had expressed fears on the island that the removal of the demonstrators would become violent. The Vieques controversy has received widespread national attention in the press and television media.

Repeated Denials, Broken Agreements Result in Mistrust of Navy

Vieques comprises 33,000 acres of which two-thirds are utilized by the US Navy leaving the population of 9,300 U.S. citizens to live in the remaining 11,000 acres. Vieques residents have long held grievances against the Navy's failure to live up to the tenets of a 1983 Memorandum of Understanding and Environmental Protection Agency regulations which have resulted in an image of an island suffering from naval abuse.

Complaints against the navy's use of Vieques are found in continually high unemployment rates of about 50 per cent, minimal economic development, a diminished fishing industry and depleted fish stocks, high rates of poor mental and physical health amongst the people of Vieques and devastating environmental damage to wildlife, lands, rivers and coral reefs.

The assault ranges are littered with unexploded bombs and other ordnance, shelled military vehicles and other military debris. In May of last year, the Navy admitted it had mistakenly fired 267 rounds tipped with depleted uranium at Vieques the previous February in violation of federal laws. In July the Navy reversed earlier denials and admitted using napalm on the island in 1993.

A Presidential Commission was set up in 1999 to examine the Vieques controversy after official representations from the Puerto Rican government. During one visit by representatives of the Commission, Vieques  Mayor Santiago said, "We, the people of Vieques, firmly believe in the concept and idea of a common national defense - but never at the cost of our human and civil rights'.

Puerto Rico - Navy Agreement in January

On January 30 the White House brokered an agreement between Puerto Rico and the Navy which permits the resumption of the exercises. Under the agreement the number of days per year that exercises would be conducted would be halved to 90 days and explosives-laden bombs and ammunition will be replaced with inert or non-explosive types. In exchange for permitting resumption of the exercises until a municipal referendum scheduled for 2001 $40 million will be provided in an economic development aid package. If the residents of Vieques oppose the continued use of the island for the exercises the Navy will leave in 2003. If they support the continued use of the range a further $50 million of development aid will be provided to the island. The implementation of the agreement has already resulted in the return of property from the Navy to government control. The property will be used for the expansion and development of the municipal airport to improve island access. The expansion will include a runway extension whose purpose is to permit larger aircraft to land on the island to increase passenger and visitor traffic.

Additional Protests Around the Country

Minor protests took place in New York city with many local politicians speaking out against the forced removal of the demonstrators and resumption of the exercises. According to a New York Times article citing web-based information sources, protests were also held outside federal buildings in Springfield, MA, Orlando, FL and elsewhere. Representative Jose Serrano (NY) was arrested in Washington for unlawfully entering and protesting on the White House grounds. Cuban-American activists in the recent Miami case of Elian Gonzalez had urged restraint on the part of federal authorities in solidarity with the people of Vieques and Puerto Rico.

Flags Fly at Half-Mast at San Juan City Hall

Meanwhile on April 19, San Juan Mayor Sila Calderon announced that flags at City Hall and at other municipal agencies would fly at halt-mast along with white flags as a tribute to David Sanes Rodriguez. The white flags would be symbolic of the municipality's solidarity with the people of Vieques. Mayor Calderon is the Popular Democratic Party candidate for Governor of Puerto Rico in November. She is opposed by Carlos Pesquera, of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party and current Puerto Rico Secretary of Transportation.

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