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POLITICS-US: Bush Decision on Vieques Unlikely to Be the Last Word

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Jun 15 2001 (IPS) - President George W. Bush’s decision to halt Navy bombing exercises on Vieques Island off Puerto Rico by May 2003 is unlikely to settle what has become an increasingly volatile conflict.

Bush confirmed his decision Thursday in Goteborg, Sweden, where he met European leaders.

Activists, who have demanded that the US Navy leave the testing area immediately and permanently, said they would continue their protests and demonstrations in the face of new exercises that are just getting under way.

The decision also provoked attacks by pro-Pentagon lawmakers, who echoed the Navy’s long-standing view that it would not be able to find another bombing site with Vieques’s unique advantages.

Opponents of the decision to return Vieques to civilian authorities by May 2003 also expressed concern that the move could set a precedent for Japan’s Okinawa Island, where local residents and politicians are also demanding that Washington withdraw its forces and vacate its military facilities.

Several members of Congress accused the administration Thursday of playing to Hispanic voters, for whom Vieques has become something of a cause celebre.

Ari Fleischer, the president’s spokesman, sharply denied the charge. ” This was a decision made on the merits,” he told reporters accompanying Bush on his trip to Europe.

As of late Thursday afternoon, Navy Secretary Gordon England was still briefing lawmakers on Capitol Hill about his proposal to name an independent commission charged with relinquishing and finding alternatives to Vieques, which the Navy described last year as the “irreplaceable crown jewel of our training.”

In the meantime, Puerto Rico’s new governor, Sila M. Calderon, and its Congressional delegate here, Anibal Acevedo-Vila, declined to give a public reaction.

Legislative sources told IPS, however, that they expected most of the Puerto Rican leadership would reject Bush’s plan. “We want them out as soon as possible,” said one Capitol Hill aide.

Calderon, a Democrat who was voted into office on a platform that called for the Navy’s immediate withdrawal from Vieques, was on the island Thursday to meet residents and protestors who are assembling there to demonstrate against the next round of naval exercises.

The US Navy and Marines have used Vieques as their premier Atlantic live-fire testing facility since the late 1940s. Located far from commercial air routes, its remoteness and coastal topography enable the two forces to practice aerial bombing, ship- to-shore shelling, and infantry landings simultaneously.

The Navy, however, shares the island with some 9,300 residents who have long complained about the exercises’ impact on their health and state of mind, the local fishing industry, and the environment.

Cancer rates and life expectancy for Vieques residents are no different from those of Puerto Ricans as a whole but researchers have found a higher incidence of vibroacoustic diseases, heart disorders linked to exposure to loud noises.

The Navy’s presence on Vieques has also been unpopular with Puerto Ricans as a constant reminder of the territory’s colonial status. Many Puerto Ricans have claimed that it would be politically impossible for the Navy to carry out such exercises in any inhabited areas of the 50 US states.

While few national politicians paid much attention to the issue during and even after the Cold War, the controversy over Vieques burst into the headlines after a stray bomb killed a civilian security guard during exercises two years ago.

His death sparked the beginning of a civil-disobedience movement that has grown steadily over the past 18 months. Since then, about 700 people have been arrested on or around the testing site. Well- known celebrities, including pop stars Ricky Martin, Marco Anthony, and Jose Feliciano as well as actor Edward James Olmos, have associated themselves with the movement.

During the last set of exercises in April and May, more than 180 protestors were arrested, including several New York politicians, civil rights activist Al Sharpton, a number of prominent Puerto Rican lawmakers, and even a US congressman from Chicago, Luis Gutierrez.

Some of those arrested, including Gutierrez and the 68-year-old vice president of the Puerto Rican Senate, Velda Gonzalez, have alleged that they were manhandled and treated unnecessarily harshly while in the Navy’s custody. Gonzalez said she was subjected to a humiliating and semi-public body search by Navy guards.

Others, such as Sharpton, have been sentenced to as much as four months in jail for trespassing and civil disobedience.

In anticipation of a new series of protests this week, Amnesty International in London called for the Navy to use restraint in dealing with demonstrations. “During the last exercises,” it said, “dozens of people reported being subject to unnecessary force and ill-treatment by Navy personnel.”

Among other abuses, the human rights watchdog cited searches; the Navy’s denial of food, water, and medications to detainees; and the use of pepper spray and other chemicals against non-violent demonstrators.

The administration clearly did not relish a repeat of the April- May disturbances. “These are our friends and neighbours and they don’t want us there,” Bush said at a news conference in Sweden Thursday. “My attitude is the Navy ought to find somewhere else to conduct its exercises.”

“I appreciate the fact that the Defense Department and the Navy responded and have made the statement loud and clear that within a reasonable period of time the Navy will find another place to practice and be prepared to keep the peace,” he added.

Bush did not himself cite May 2003 as the deadline, but a defence official told reporters that was the decision, confirmed at a White House meeting Wednesday involving Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, England and Karl Rove, Bush’s top political advisor.

Rove’s participation was seen as significant given the importance for Republicans he has attributed to the Hispanic and Roman Catholic vote. Gov. George Pataki of New York, where the Puerto Rican vote is a significant factor, led Republicans in putting pressure on the White House.

Yet a third factor was Calderon’s scheduling of a Puerto Rico-wide plebiscite on the Navy’s use of Vieques, next month. Most analysts believe that, if the vote goes forward, the electorate will vote overwhelmingly for the Navy’s departure, an eventuality that would ensure that Bush’s proposed solution is unlikely to satisfy most Puerto Ricans.

 
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