Heaven and Hell
II. Cancer and Other Worries
III. Ni una bomba más
IV. The Pentagon's Report
V. Negotiations with Clinton: The
VI. Behind Closed Doors
VII. "Endless Liability"
VIII. As Long As it Takes
The Pentagon's Report
The second of the Special Commission's recommendations on Vieques
was that action be taken to "promote and advance the cause...before
the people of the United States, Congress, the White House, or any
other appropriate forum." This Governor Rosselló endeavored
to do on October 19, 1999, when he appeared before the Senate Armed
Services Committee (SASC). Along with its sister committee in the
House of Representatives, SASC oversees all matters crucial to America's
It was a fateful day. That morning, six months after David Sanes's
death, the Pentagon had released its findings. The report found
that "insensitivity has been the hallmark of the Navy's approach
to community relations." This was alarming, given health conditions
on Vieques, where the panel found "little indication of sincere
and sustained efforts on the part of the Navy in identifying the
cause(s) of high cancer rates."
The report recommended measures for the immediate improvement of
community relations, the "forceful" promotion of environmental
protection and economic development, and the dispatch of a team
to look into the cancers and other health complaints. It also urged
the Navy to turn over a few key properties to the Puerto Rican government.
Chairman Francis Rush called it a "wake up call" for the Navy --
the report had found against the Navy's argument that Vieques was
an "irreplaceable" range. Instead, they held, the Navy should find
an alternative as soon as possible, and "cease all training on Vieques
within five years." Meanwhile, they urged that the amount of live
fire be cut in half, and the bombing schedule reduced from 365 days
a year to 130.
The Rush panel's finding was a mortal blow to all sides. For Governor
Rosselló, tasked with advancing "the official position
of the Government of Puerto Rico," this was unacceptable: the
bottom line still remained "ni una bomba más." As Aníbal
Acevedo-Vilá, sole emissary of Burgos's Special Commission,
told the Senators later that day, "The Rush Report is little
more than a repackaging of the Navy's case for resumed live-firing
and other military activities on Vieques."
But however awkward the Puerto Rican reaction was for the Navy,
to the Senate Armed Services Committee, it was much, much worse.
The SASC sees its priority as the security of the nation. It is
they who evaluate what the Pentagon proposes, and turn it, year
by year, into legislature. And for the military, the first order
of business is "preparedness," the result of constant
exercises at bases across America. But those bases are under increasing
fire from local communities. In Washington, this issue is known
as the debate over "encroachment."
There are two forces driving the dispute, and both have been growing
for forty years: urban sprawl and environmental concern. Military
ranges that were selected because they were once far away from human
habitation are now not so remote, as towns and cities keep spreading.
And the toxic materials produced by military exercises are considered
far more dangerous now than they once were.
"The Navy and Marines are under particular pressure,"
noted environmental analyst Lenny Siegel, "because they have
unique requirements -- shoreline and beaches -- that are both less
available and more likely to be in demand from either developers
or natural resource trustees."
In this ongoing debate, the position of the Armed Services Committees
is clear: it is their duty to make sure that national security is
protected at all costs.
"If we allow politicians to close [the Vieques base] down," Oklahoma
Republican James Inhofe fulminated, "we're going to be put in a
position where there's not a training range around the world --
and some within our continental United States -- that someone isn't
demanding be shut down. And then where are we going to be?"
For Rosselló, what was important was not what Vieques had
in common with other military ranges, but what set it apart: its
Puerto Rican identity. Rosselló argued that Vieques suffers
abuse which would be unacceptable in the U.S., because it is a Territory
-- which is legalese for a colony. "It is unimaginable that Vieques
should be the place where the Navy expends close to half of its
total world-wide allotment of training ordnance... Or that large-caliber
ship-to-shore bombardment takes place there on a scale unmatched
in the vicinity of any other populated area anywhere," he heatedly
told the Committee.
"Never again shall we tolerate abuse which no community in
any of the fifty states would ever be asked to tolerate. We, the
people of Puerto Rico, have graduated from colonial passivity,"
Rosselló thundered. Ni una bomba más. "Never
again shall we tolerate such abuse. Not for sixty years...and not
for sixty minutes."
Incredulously, the Committee's Chairman (and ex-Secretary of the
Navy), Senator John Warner, asked Rosselló, "Will you work
towards an interim resolution of this problem, such that a single
airplane or a single ship can fire one round or drop one bomb?"
"Any bombing of Vieques is unacceptable to us," was Rosselló's
unequivocal response. Senator Inhofe, who also chaired the Subcommittee
responsible for base closures, went ballistic. He hit back as hard
as he could, at Rosselló and Puerto Rico. "I want you to
know -- and I want all of the media to report what I'm saying --
that there is a link between Roosevelt Roads and the range. There's
no reason for Roosevelt Roads if the range disappears..."
In a forum where the disbursement of military dollars regularly
provokes hard fights between competing constituencies, such a threat
was a show-stopper. Roosevelt Roads provides jobs for 2,500 civilians
and $300 million a year for the local economy. So after a few more
heated exchanges between Inhofe and Rosselló, stop the show
it did. Inhofe's threat wasn't real -- Roosevelt Roads is far too
important to U.S. national security -- but his anger was, and it
would come back to haunt not Rosselló but the viequenses.