The Navy, the Island and the Deal

Roger Trilling

I. Heaven and Hell
II. Cancer and Other Worries
III. Ni una bomba más
IV. The Pentagon's Report
V. Negotiations with Clinton: The Pullout
VI. Behind Closed Doors
VII. "Endless Liability"
VIII. As Long As it Takes

IV. 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 military bases.

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.

Vieques Main

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© 2001 Roger Trilling, El Andar Magazine