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

VIII. As Long As it Takes

Last November, Rosselló's party was voted out of office. It was a close race, but Sila Calderón's demand for an immediate stop to the bombing was a decisive factor. Within days of taking office, Calderón sat down with the leaders of both opposition parties and drafted a letter asking Clinton to withdraw the Navy before he left office.

Calderón also vowed that viequenses would be allowed their own referendum, with choices reflecting the true range of popular opinion. It would be held on a date chosen by the people, not the Navy (it was set for July 2001). This referendum would not be binding on the Navy, but it would let them know how the people really felt. She also removed the riot police from around the range, and pledged to spend the same $50 million on Vieques that the Navy would withhold if the vote went against it.

In January 2001, Calderón repudiated the agreement with the Navy. In April, she sued to block the exercises. She bedeviled the Navy with medical reports stating that noise from the constant bombardment was causing inflammations of the pericardium, the muscle around the heart, especially in children. This resulted in the passing of a noise law which prohibited further shelling.

These were all measures which went against the letter or the spirit of the Directive, and Rosselló's people watched them unfold with horror. "$12 billion a year comes from the federal government, and you don't play with that," Morey said. Darkly, Rosselló warned that if Calderón's government ignored the Directive, the Navy might feel free to do the same.

Many of Calderón's efforts didn't stand up in federal court, but it was becoming clear to the Navy that, on the popular front, they were fighting a losing battle. The size and duration of the protests was increasing, and it was getting more and more difficult for the Navy to clear the ranges before each set of exercises began (even the mayor of Vieques took to the range). In April, thousands demonstrated in front of the capitol, joined by celebrities such as Ricky Martin, Josˇ Feliciano and Benicio del Toro.

Vieques was becoming a cause célèbre. By May, political luminaries from the mainland were being jailed with alarming regularity. These included Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is representing the viequenses in a lawsuit; U.S. Congressman Luis Gutiérrez, who was badly roughed up by military police; the Reverend Al Sharpton, who protested with a hunger-fast; Bronx County Democratic chairman Roberto Ramírez, New York State Assemblyman José Rivera, and City Councilman Adolfo Carrión Jr., who all got forty days; labor leader Dennis Rivera and actor Edward James Olmos; and Jackie (Mrs. Jesse) Jackson, who got ten days for refusing to submit to a body search after she was arrested.

Even Norma Burgos, the ex-Secretary of State who had headed Rosselló's Special Commission, was sentenced in July. The judge gave her forty days, saying that she should be "a law-maker, not a law-breaker." When she retorted that it was the Navy, instead of peaceful protesters, who should be on trial, he added twenty more days to her sentence.

The viequenses were cutting through the Navy's fences regularly; the Navy complained of people burying themselves in the ground to avoid detection. Hundreds were arrested, which provoked constant protests in front of the federal prison; even Miss USA came out against the bombing.

The Navy was losing control, and the consequences were dire. They were about to be voted off their own base for the first time in history. Given the battles over encroachment across America and abroad (where American military bases are often deeply unpopular), being booted off Vieques would set a disastrous precedent.

On June 14, the new Secretary of the Navy, Gordon England, met with President Bush, the Deputy Secretary of Defense and Bush's political adviser, Karl Rove. Agreeing that the November referendum was unwinnable, President Bush decided to announce that, irrespective of the outcome, the Navy would leave Vieques in May 2003.

The problem was that Congress had already made sure that the November referendum would happen. They had made Clinton's Directive into law. And now, without any consultation, Congress was being asked to change that law.

They were dead set against it. "I see this as an issue that means American lives," Senator Inhofe railed. "I will do everything I can to keep from changing the law, so that we can go ahead with the November referendum." Things had taken a strange turn: the Navy was now fighting to leave Vieques, and Congress fought to make it stay and face a referendum.

On June 27, England and Admiral Vern Clark, Chief of Naval Operations, testified before a very roiled House Armed Services Committee. The two were taken to task for having mishandled the social and environmental situation on Vieques, for having mishandled the public relations effort afterwards, and for having mishandled Congress. Above all, the Navy was accused -- the supreme insult -- of inept politics.

Admiral Clark mentioned that the Navy had "prohibitions on community activities," to which Representative Gene Taylor of Mississippi asked, "What prohibitions, Admiral?"

"I'm talking about the political environment." Clark responded. "I've had cases where we wanted to have people go to meetings. And we were advised by the local authorities, 'Don't go there because we can't guarantee your safety.'"

"Admiral," Representative Taylor replied, "as I've told you folks ad nauseam, every one of us has been elected. Every one of us has tough neighborhoods. You know how you get a tough neighborhood on your side? You go there. You sit down and listen to what they have to say. Not one time. Not twice. You keep going back until you resolve your differences. And with all due respect, you really haven't tried that, Admiral."

The Navy had been told to get out there and campaign vigorously, starting with Calderón's July referendum.

The Navy didn't handle it well. Their strategy was to take some of the $40 million earmarked for ecological and community development and spend as much of it as possible. The fishermen were offered $100 a day for every day missed due to naval exercises, retroactive to October 1, 2000. And $25,000 grants were suddenly awarded to viequenses who wanted to expand their businesses.

The tactic didn't work.

On July 29, 2001, the citizens of Vieques were finally allowed to vote on the Navy's future on the island. Two out of three voted for an immediate departure.

The hope was that this result would be interpreted as a call for justice, as befits a social impulse sanctioned by the Catholic Church. But in Washington, this non-binding plebiscite was considered an act of pride and arrogance: civilians should not be allowed to decide issues of national security, period.

The House Armed Services Committee reacted accordingly. On August 1, 2001, they voted to cancel the November referendum. They also allowed the Navy to stay on Vieques for as long as it takes to find an alternative. There was no pullout date specified.

Vieques Main


© 2001 Roger Trilling, El Andar Magazine