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New York Daily News

Navy Wise To Back Off Vieques


January 10, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Daily News, L.P.. All Rights Reserved.

La decisión de la Marina de suspender las maniobras que estaba previsto comenzasen a finales de este mes en Vieques fue una decisión inteligente — además de ética.

It had "disaster" written all over it, so the Navy's decision to cancel the military training scheduled to begin at the end of this month in Vieques was the smart thing to do - not to mention the ethical one.

Against the wishes of two of the Navy's highest-ranking officers, Secretary of the Navy Gordon England did not allow the John F. Kennedy battle group to train in Vieques . Instead, maneuvers will be conducted in Virginia and North Carolina.

The island's pro-peace activists were as elated by the news as they were surprised.

"We see this as a victory, and it is important that we feel energized by it," said Roberto Rabin, leader of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques , one of the main groups opposing the Navy's presence. "But let's not deceive ourselves - this happened because of the daily work, the civil disobedience, the constant pressure."

No one wanted it, but if maneuvers had not been suspended, violence would have been an all too real possibility.

The aircraft carrier Kennedy is particularly detested by Viequenses. It was an errant bomb from one of its planes that led to the death of a civilian, David Sanes Rodrguez, in April 1999, sparking a massive wave of protests against the Navy.

Since then, the Vieques training has been limited to dummy bombs and shells, and blank cartridges. But in recent weeks, Navy Adm. Vernon Clark and Marine Gen. James Jones, citing the war in Afghanistan, had requested permission to use live ammunition again.

Puerto Rico 's Gov. Sila Caldern was concerned. In a letter to Navy Secretary England she said: "If live bombs were to be used again, it would inflame passions among protesters and create a very sensitive situation for all concerned." The Pentagon took her seriously. A new system Passions were indeed already heating up among those who want the Navy out of Vieques .

"The battle group of the aircraft carrier, USS John F. Kennedy, that will bomb here [ Vieques ] at the end of January, represents a grave danger for our community," said the committee in a press release. "The ships will arrive to test, using live missiles, a new computerized weapons system known as Cooperative Engagement Capability. These will be the first ships in the Navy to deploy with this experimental system."

To make matters worse, last month the Kennedy, which was supposed to relieve the Theodore Roosevelt at the combat zone after training in Vieques , failed a routine inspection. The problems were so serious that its commanding officer was fired.

The Kennedy "could not prudently demonstrate safe and reliable underway operations," said a Navy Board of Inspection and Survey report.

Obviously, there were plenty of reasons to cancel these particular exercises. Yet Puerto Ricans believe the decision could have wider significance. Many think it could mean a new willingness to stop the abuse Vieques has suffered since the 1940s, when the Navy expropriated two-thirds of its territory to use as a shooting range.

The timing of the cancellation also is significant. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the prospects for the Navy pulling out dimmed considerably. England's decision gives renewed hope to the people of Vieques .

The maneuvers had "disaster" written all over them, so the Navy did the smart thing, canceling them. Yet, the possibility of more practice bombing hangs over Vieques like a dark cloud.

Rabin, for one, is skeptical.

"We are very happy," he said. "But we must go on working for peace."

After all, heaven usually helps those who help themselves.

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