The Fight against War Games in Paradise

By Aixa M. Pascual

Just outside the barbed-wire fence separating Camp García from the rest of Vieques, a lush island six miles off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, signs of the clash between the locals and the U.S. Navy are evident: A painting of a weeping Statue of Liberty hangs from the barbed-wire fence, beside handmade signs calling for "No More Bombs." Four dozen wooden crosses--three feet tall, some adorned with red plastic flowers--have been planted in the soil. The white crosses commemorate not only a native victim of a military accident but also the locals afflicted with cancer and other maladies--all believed to be linked to the bombing exercises the Navy has conducted on Vieques for the past six decades. The message here is clear: Many locals want the Navy out--now.

Nine miles inside the 5,700-hectare military camp, which occupies nearly half of the island of Vieques, the Navy runs its most prized target-practice area on the eastern side of the continent. Outside the gates, the nearly 10,000 civilian residents of the 200-square-km island live sandwiched between Camp García to the east and 3,200 hectares to the west that have till now served as an ammunition dump.

Tensions are heating up even as the temperature climbs with summer approaching. Protesters invaded the range when the Navy resumed bombing in Vieques on Apr. 27, after a federal judge denied a restraining order sought by the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to stop this round of exercises. Three days before the bombing resumed, Puerto Rico Governor Sila María Calderón, a staunch foe of the test range, tried to stop bombing exercises by signing a law restricting noise levels--and by extension, any ship-to-shore shelling. As the Navy continued its exercises on May 1, about 140 protesters, including the mayor of Vieques and a prominent pro-independence leader, had been arrested.

TIGHT LIMITS. The Navy has been in Vieques since the early 1940s, when it expropriated more than three-quarters of this island paradise of pristine beaches and turquoise, glasslike waters featuring a spectacular phosphorescent bay. For most of the past six decades, the Navy and the residents of Vieques have coexisted, albeit uneasily. But everything changed on the night of Apr. 19, 1999, when a native civilian guard, David Sanes, was accidentally killed by two 225-kg bombs that missed their target and exploded near an observation post hard by the bombing range. Exercises were suspended for more than a year, as opponents camped outside the range in protest; many were arrested by U.S. Marshals last May. Bombing resumed last summer, but under a directive issued by President Clinton in January, 2000, the Navy can only use the bombing range for 90 days a year--and can't use live ammunition. A referendum among viequenses has been mandated for November. If the vote goes against the Navy, they will have to leave by May, 2003.

The Navy claims Vieques is crucial to its mission. Spokesmen say it's the only place the Atlantic Fleet can conduct air, ground, and sea operations simultaneously. At least until 1999, Navy planes practiced with bombs that actually went "boom," and ships fired live shells at shorebound targets to simulate real-world combat, as they did to prepare troops for conflicts in the Persian Gulf and Kosovo. The conditions here are ideal, claims the Navy, because there is no commercial air or sea traffic nearby. And the proximity of deep water facilitates amphibious operations.

But the ability to fire live ordnance is the real attraction. Vieques is the only place on the East Coast where the Navy can practice ship-to-shore shelling. "The real advantage about Vieques is the ability to do live fire in all warfare functions," says Lieutenant Commander John Kirby of the Second Fleet. What's more, because the live range is separated from civilian areas by a nine-mile buffer zone, the Navy says bombing poses no danger to island residents.

But University of Puerto Rico history professor Juan Giusti notes that nowhere else in the U.S. or its territories does the military conduct bombing exercises this close to a populated area. In the Pacific, Navy ships practice ship-to-shore shelling on San Clemente Island off the coast of California--which is uninhabited. And it's not just the live naval shells; jets flying nearby at up to 885 km per hour also pose a risk for civilians, argues Giusti. "Viequenses are always living in harm's way," he comments.

Dr. Betzaida Mackenzie, who moved to Vieques 16 years ago and practices family medicine just outside the capital city of Isabel II, believes that the military maneuvers have hurt the health of Viequenses. Although Mackenzie admits she cannot prove a direct link between the Navy's presence and the high incidence of some diseases, she is concerned that "something strange" is going on. Mackenzie has seen a disproportionate number of cancer patients in her practice since 1993, a finding that may buttress the Puerto Rico Health Dept.'s claim that cancer rates among local residents are much higher than among Puerto Rico mainlanders. Mackenzie has also noticed an increased incidence of ailments such as sinus infections and asthma when exercises are taking place. The Navy, she says, is "affecting our health, our economy, everything." For their part, military spokesmen flatly deny the Navy has caused any medical, economic, or ecological problems on Vieques.

Carlos Zenón, now 64, has fished the waters off Vieques since he was 12. Sitting in the living room of his concrete home, Zenón recounts the many times he has witnessed exercises up close while fishing offshore. And now Zenón is worried about the toll that the bombing is taking on the health of his family: His mother and father-in-law died of cancer, and now Zenón says he has developed black spots the size of quarters on his legs, which a physician thinks might have been caused by exposure to uranium while protesting on the range. The Navy says that, while it has used depleted-uranium rounds in the past, it no longer fires them on Vieques, but Zenón is sure the associated health dangers remain real. Even dummy ordnance, he says, "lifts contaminated soil from the ground," making exposure possible farther afield.

The federal government is looking into the health effects of ordnance used here. Dr. Robert Johnson, a medical officer with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry in Atlanta, says that some of the explosives--such as TNT--that have been used in Vieques are potential human carcinogens, if there is a high level of exposure. But it has yet to be determined whether contaminants have been passed on to the residents and at what levels. "Our concern is over the years how much has been deposited," says Johnson.

TOXIC LEAK. It's not just the people. There is also heightened concern about the island's ecosystem. University of Georgia marine ecologist James Porter says the surrounding waters have been affected. Porter studied the waters near the range and found TNT leaking from bombs was killing nearby corals.

On April 30, the Navy transferred its lands on the western part of the island to the Vieques and federal governments, as well as to the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico. There have been other positive developments: American Eagle is due to begin flights to the island soon, and Rosewood Hotels & Resorts has been building a luxury hotel near the airport. But many locals doubt all this will make much difference while the controversy continues. "We're on the edge of many changes, but no one knows what is going to happen," says Gordon Rumore, a New York native who retired here three years ago. If nothing else, the next seven months may well remove that uncertainty.

Pascual, who writes for BusinessWeek, is a Puerto Rico native. She first visited Vieques about 20 years ago.

Edited by George Foy

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