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Puerto Rico Warily Eyes Vote On Vieques' Fate

Protest Movement Loses Momentum After Attacks

Puerto Rico Warily Eyes Vote On Vieques' Fate

By John Marino

September 30, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Reuters Limited 2001. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES , Puerto Rico - Every morning last week, a small circle of protesters clasped hands and prayed silently in front of the U.S. Navy's Camp Garcia as gunfire sounded in the distance.

The protesters, who want the Navy to end bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques , have called a moratorium on civil disobedience during the 23-day round of Navy maneuvers that began on Sept. 23. The moratorium aimed to show solidarity with the thousands killed in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

But protest leaders warned that the raucous anti-Navy protests of the recent past could return if the U.S. Congress kills a Nov. 6 referendum on the Navy's departure from Vieques and instead allows the military service to choose its exit date.

"Even President Bush said life has to return to normal," said Ismael Guadalupe, of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques . "For us, that's civil disobedience."

The Navy has used the island for bombing practice for 60 years. Residents blame the bombing for health and environmental damage and galvanized to oust the Navy after an errant bomb killed a civilian security guard two years ago.

During recent training exercises, protesters have repeatedly cut fences and sneaked onto the bombing range, disrupting the war games.

Under a deal reached between the Clinton White House and former Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello in January 2000, island residents would vote on whether the Navy must halt training on Vieques by May 1, 2003, or stay indefinitely in exchange for $50 million of economic investment.


But the U.S. House of Representatives passed a military spending bill last week eliminating the referendum and allowing the Navy to train on Vieques until military officials certify they have found another training site as good or better.

If the Senate votes this week to keep the referendum, Vieques ' fate would likely be decided by a conference committee charged with resolving differences between the chambers.

"People here are paying close attention to what is happening in Washington," said Teo Bermudez, 53, who heads the Vieques Merchants Association.

U.S. President George W. Bush said in July that the United States would pull the Navy out of Vieques by May 1, 2003. The Bush administration cited the likelihood the Navy would lose the vote and called it bad public policy to put national defense issues up for local referendum - but it has not formally canceled the referendum.

In a nonbinding vote called by Gov. Sila Calderon in July, 68 percent of Vieques residents voted for the Navy to leave immediately and clean up and return the land it holds on Vieques .

Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo-Vila, the nonvoting congressional representative for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico , a self-governing part of the United States, said local officials want the Bush administration to reaffirm the 2003 departure date.

"Part of the strategy we are working on is to pressure (the Bush administration) so that it reaffirms its position and its position becomes law," he said.


Acevedo-Vila traveled to Vieques on Friday to talk to residents about the drastically changed environment in Washington following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City and Washington. Concerns over national security have gathered support behind Navy allies in Congress who bristle at setting a date for a Navy departure.

Even members of Congress sympathetic to the drive to stop Navy bombing in Vieques , such as Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York and Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, say now is not the time to push for a Navy exit.

But in Vieques , few residents appear to have changed their minds.

"What the Navy does on Vieques has nothing to do with what happened in New York," Bermudez said. " Vieques is a business for them because they let foreign militaries fire weapons there. And it's a weapons dump."

Protest Movement Against U.S. Navy Bombing On Vieques Loses Momentum After Attacks


September 30, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES , Puerto Rico (AP) - The hundreds of protesters are down to 20. Noisy demonstrations that captured the attention of the world are supplanted by quiet prayer sessions.

The terrorist attacks against the United States have disrupted the movement to halt U.S. Navy bombing exercises on Vieques , interrupting its momentum and creating disunity.

"The terrorist acts are the best excuse that those who aren't very committed to this fight have found to paralyze it," said Sixto Perez, leader of one anti-Navy group.

The protest camp outside the gates of the Navy's Camp Garcia was unusually quiet Sunday after the first week of bombing exercises since the Sept. 11 attacks. Only 10 people wandered outside the so-called "Peace and Justice Camp."

At the camp's busiest moment on Saturday, about 20 people bowed their heads in prayer. One woman shouted "Navy Get Out!" across the chain-link fence, but no one echoed her.

During previous exercises, hundreds turned out to shout anti-Navy slogans and break through Navy fences. Hundreds have been arrested and jailed for trespassing since 1999, when a Puerto Rican guard was killed by errant bombs on the range.

Most protest groups agreed not to break into Navy land after the attacks, partly for security and partly in solidarity with victims of the attacks, which killed dozens of Puerto Ricans .

But some, including Perez, disagree with that decision.

Puerto Rico 's newspapers, usually filled with Vieques coverage, have been paying scant attention. And Gov. Sila Calderon, who opposes the Navy bombing, has said little.

About 12,000 sailors are participating in the exercises, which include jets dropping non-explosive bombs and ships firing inert shells at the Caribbean island's range.

No protesters have been arrested, although some cut a section of fence Friday, which was quickly repaired, Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Katherine Goode said. Increasing security, the Navy posted sailors with a machine gun across the fence from the protest camp.

"People are afraid because after the attacks there are armed people at the entrance, and since there's an agreement that no one should enter, why go?" said 38-year-old schoolteacher Ana Lopez.

The Navy has bombed the eastern tip of Vieques for six decades, training sailors for conflicts from World War II to the Persian Gulf War. Opponents say the bombardment harms the environment and health of Vieques ' 9,100 residents - accusations the Navy denies.

In a nonbinding referendum in July, 68 percent of Vieques voters said the Navy should leave immediately.

A binding federal referendum scheduled for November would ask islanders whether the Navy should leave in 2003 or stay and pay dlrs 50 million for public works projects.

President George W. Bush said before the attacks that the Navy should leave by May 2003. But last week, the House of Representatives approved a defense bill to cancel the referendum and let the Navy stay until a comparable site is found. The House and Senate are to finalize the wording in coming weeks.


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