2003 CPEO Military List Archive

From: Aimee Houghton <aimeeh@cpeo.org>
Date: 2 May 2003 16:57:44 -0000
Reply: cpeo-military
Subject: [CPEO-MEF] Navy Departs from Vieques
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Navy Leaves a Battered Island, and Puerto Ricans Cheer
By Dana Canedy

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico, May 1  For most of the more than 9,000 people of Viéques, the official end today of Navy bombing exercises after more than 60 years was cause for an islandwide celebration of the conclusion of a painful era and the hope for a new beginning.

"People are very jubilant," said Ardelle Ferrer, a 51-year-old artist who has been celebrating all week and is building a sculpture in honor of the island. "Everyone is so happy seeing something that seemed so impossible."

Viéques officials were to begin four days of activities celebrating the Navy's departure in the first minutes of today, but the party started early when Gov. Sila M. Calderón arrived on Wednesday afternoon and addressed already jubilant residents. Dozens of locals and residents from the main island, many wearing shirts reading "Celebration of Peace on Viéques," clapped and cheered when the governor arrived at Isabel Segunda's town square to the sounds of a steel band.

"This is a moment of great happiness and profound emotion," Governor Calderón said. "Together, we achieved the end of the bombing."

Surrounded by Puerto Rican government officials and 20 local schoolchildren, Governor Calderón said the Navy's exit "marks the beginning of a new era of peace and tranquility" for Viéques. She said, "This is a triumph for all of the people of Puerto Rico, as well as our brothers and sisters in the United States."

In an interview on Monday, Governor Calderón said that while political pressure had helped end the exercises, President Bush deserved credit for keeping his word to stop them. "It is a testimony to the president's commitment to protect human rights," she said. Her administration was setting aside $50 million for public works improvements here, she added.

For more than 60 years, the Navy used a 900-acre firing range on the eastern tip of the tiny island for bombing exercises. For decades it insisted that the exercises could not take place elsewhere, because the area offered a unique opportunity to conduct ship-to-shore gunnery practice and aerial bombings.

The people of Viéques and the Puerto Rican commonwealth bitterly complained that the drills were dangerous. The practice generated international criticism in 1999, when two errant bombs killed a civilian Puerto Rican security guard.

Thousands of people protested the exercises, including politicians, actors and civil rights activists from the mainland. Under political pressure, President Bush announced in June 2001 that his administration would end the bombing practices today. The military will now conduct the exercises in several southern states, including Florida.

Dámaso Serrano, mayor of Viéques, said the island was a safer place today.

"Thanks to the unity of the people of Viéques, of the people of Puerto Rico, of the people of the United States, we achieved the exit of the Navy and a definite peace for the people of Vieques," Mr. Serrano said. Still, he said a battle would continue to see that the land was cleaned up and returned to the municipality.

Rafael Rivera Castaño, a doctor whose father, Antonio Rivera Rodríguez, was mayor of Viéques from 1949 to 1973, echoed the current mayor's concerns.

"We have to get working again," said Mr. Rivera, who believes Navy activities are responsible for poor health among the island residents.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group, spent a month in jail in 2001 for trespassing during a protest on the island. Mr. Kennedy said the Navy's withdrawal was a mixed blessing. "The problem is they're leaving the poison behind," he said.

"There are tens of thousands of unexploded bombs," Mr. Kennedy said. "Fish are contaminated, crabs are contaminated, seagrass is contaminated. The soils are contaminated with toxins. The fact that they're leaving the island would be great, if they would clean up."

To view the rest of the article go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/02/national/02PUER.html?8hpib

Aimee R. Houghton                                 
Associate Director, CPEO
1101 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 1000
Washington, DC  20036
tel: 202-452-8039; fax: 202-452-8095
Email: aimeeh@cpeo.org

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