by Lisa Vives
(GIN) SAN JUAN --
of the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, plan to mark the long-awaited departure of the U.S. Navy with one of the largest outdoor parties ever seen in this embattled corner of the U.S. commonwealth island. The official departure begins May 1.
The NavyŐs use of Vieques as a target range, which provoked countless battles with residents and environmentalists over the years, dates back to the 1940s. According to residents, Navy bomb runs are to blame for crippling their economy, spoiling the fish stock and sickening children.
Protestors against the Navy presence, who waged a fierce battle against their powerful neighbor of the north, will be the guests of honor at the four day party starting May 1.
Meanwhile, seven miles away by boat on the main island of Puerto Rico, the sprawling Navy base that once served as headquarters for Vieques training and was one of the islandŐs largest employers, is shrinking dramatically -- if not disappearing altogether.
The Vieques range is to become the Caribbean's largest national wildlife refuge.
Navy officials said the decision to move their island operations to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio was based on cutting costs and boosting living standards. But the protesters who often closed the bases' gates made soldier life in Puerto Rico uncomfortable, Maj. Gen. Alfred Valenzuela, who leads U.S. Army South, said in a press interview.
''There were some occasions these demonstrations got a little bit dicey,'' Valenzuela said to the Miami Herald. "Attacks in the newspaper, that doesn't hurt me. But what does hurt me is when you throw rocks at my school buses.''
The U.S. Southern Command, once stationed in Panama, moved its headquarters to Miami-Dade in 1997, but Puerto Rico became the hub for the largest concentration of U.S. military forces in Latin America and the Caribbean. Now hundreds of millions of dollars in military spending on the island could be lost.
Although no precise payroll numbers are available, about half of the estimated 3,700 active-duty military and 3,800 civilians who support them will be leaving because of reductions at Roosevelt Roads and the departure of Army South, according to Southcom.
Gov. Sila Calderon, who fought to get the Navy out of Vieques, says her government also will work hard to keep the military at Roosevelt Roads.
Since 1898, the U.S. armed forces have had a presence in Puerto Rico, a strategic post situated at the opening to the Caribbean Sea. Later, the Navy began to gobble up land on Vieques, forcing families to move, and at one point owned up to 80 percent of the land.
In 1999, a Navy pilot training for a mission in Kosovo veered off course and dropped a bomb on an observation tower, killing 35-year-old civilian guard David Sanes Rodr’guez. That same year, the Navy admitted a Marine fighter jet mistakenly dropped 263 shells tipped with depleted uranium on the range and that it had previously used napalm in training. Over the years more than 1,000 protesters have been arrested, and such figures as actor Edward James Olmos, singer Marc Anthony and Robert Kennedy Jr. have taken up the cause.
The debate also fueled Puerto Rico's independence movement, whose followers say the island is strangled by its ''colonial'' relationship with the United States.
But Puerto Rico still has the highest recruitment rate nationwide for the Army, and the highest retention rate for the Reserves. Troops say the military gives them a shot at an education and other opportunities.
Meanwhile, the Atlantic Fleet training facility will move to sites in northern Florida and North Carolina. In Vieques, a nature reserve will replace the bombing range, which makes Ismael Guadalupe Ortiz very happy.
Guadalupe was one of the first arrested in an anti-bombing range protest in 1979. His son, also named Ismael, is in jail for storming the bombing range in January.
The people won, he said, but there is still much work to do. He and others want to make sure the U.S. government sticks to its promise to clean up its former range of undetonated bombs and napalm it once used. But Guadalupe will be there when the party begins at midnight, cheering with hundreds of others.
April 29, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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