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The Boston Globe

Sept. 11, Bush Vow, Cool Vieques Uproar; Most Still Want Navy To Find New Bombing Range

By Sarah Schweitzer

January 23, 2002
Copyright © 2002
The Boston Globe. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES , Puerto Rico - Under the shade of a banana tree, they swayed to Lee Greenwood's anthem, "God Bless the USA," ringing out from a massive sound system. American flags fluttered in the gentle breeze, and in the center of town, the days of thunderous protest over military bombing exercises here seemed a remote memory.

"There were those who burned flags and yelled, `Yankee, go home,' but no more," said state Senator Miriam Ramirez at the rally Sunday in support of the US Navy's occupation of this island's eastern flank. "The ships that train here go on to the Gulf. Sept. 11 sealed it."

Most people on this island of one-lane roads and roaming horses still want the Navy out.

But a comparative quiet - or tranquilismo, as it's called here - has reigned since the terrorist attacks prompted protest leaders to call a moratorium on civil disobedience, a calm reinforced by President Bush's promise last June to pull the Navy off the island by May 2003 and this month's decision to transfer bombing exercises from Vieques to North Carolina and Florida.

Nine months have passed since Vieques captured world headlines, when a parade of celebrities joined hundreds of residents opposed to the mock bombing runs that they blame for heart abnormalities and other illnesses. Then, flares lit the sky, and cheers went up, as protesters cut fences and ventured onto Navy property.

Now, bored State Police patrol the buffer zone. Weathered signs proclaiming "Peace for Vieques " flap against the fence, and the only other sounds are the echoing calls of roosters in the surrounding hills.

The last bombing exercises held here - with the dummy ammunition used since two live bombs fell off target and killed a Puerto Rican security guard in 1999 - passed with only muted demonstrations at the end of September.

A lone women standing outside the Camp Garcia gate shouted, "Navy out now," while 20 others looked on in silent prayer.

"The period after Sept. 11 demanded pause, reflection, re evaluation," said Robert Rabin, originally of Everett, Mass., who has worked here for 20 years, most recently as director of a museum and as head of a protest group.

"We needed to assess strategy for a struggle that is not over," he said.

The nature of the strategy, Rabin said, remains to be seen.

What might have reignited protests ended in a fizzle when the Navy announced the transfer of January exercises to Florida and North Carolina. Military officials denied bowing to pressure, saying that troops were under a tight timetable and had quicker access to mainland training grounds.

Protesters abandoned plans for a major demonstration and instead held a giant pig roast on Vieques last week, without celebrities like actor Edward James Olmos or environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who joined protesters last April.

Given the choice, islanders want to see an end to the Navy base, which occupies 70 percent of the 21-mile-long, 5-mile-wide Vieques .

In a nonbinding referendum on Vieques last July, 68 percent of voters said the Navy should leave at once. Sporadic demonstrations have continued on the mainland, and fence cuttings at Camp Garcia still occur nightly, according to Navy officials. There have been no arrests.

Many have pinned hopes on Bush's promise to remove the Navy by May 2003, a vow he has not reiterated publicly since Sept. 11. Residents were heartened this month when Puerto Rico 's governor, Sila Maria Calderon, said Bush had assured her he will keep the promise.

In addition to increased support for the military, concern for the island's reputation has spurred the calm. Tourism dipped after news reports of screaming protesters and high-profile arrestees hauled from Camp Garcia. In recent weeks, hotels have reported stronger business, an improvement that few residents want to risk losing.

And yet there are still men like Hector Bouyett, 55, a retiree who spends every night from 6 p.m. until 1 a.m. stationed on the porch of a makeshift protest compound of cement block across from the Camp Garcia gate.

"Yes, Bush has said the Navy will leave, but I'll believe it when it's in writing," Bouyett said. "Until then, the military can keep looking for bin Laden, and I will keep up my fight."

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