War games issue stirs Puerto Rican protest
May 10, 1999
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (CNN) -- Protesters remained camped on U.S. Navy land Sunday, as members of Puerto Rico's independence party protested U.S. war games that killed a civilian and injured four other people on the island of Vieques.
Navy officials have said the site occupied by the protesters is filled with unexploded live ordnance that poses a danger to them.
Vieques' 9,300 residents say war games' bombing harms the environment, destroys marine life, stunts economic development and may be linked to an above-normal cancer rate. They also worry about the danger presented by the bombs themselves.
Controversy over the war games has created a rare political unity on the Caribbean island, where the debate on whether Puerto Rico should seek U.S. statehood, seek independence or maintain its U.S. commonwealth status usually keeps the three main political parties from agreeing on issues.
The protesters have enjoyed wide community support, with fishermen ferrying out supplies donated by local residents.
On the firing line
Members of the Puerto Rican Independence Party trespassed on the Navy property on Vieques Saturday.
Amid cheering crowds, they joined a band of protesters who have camped at the site since civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez was killed by an errant bomb during war games on April 19.
"We are going right into the middle of the firing line," said party President Ruben Berrios. "They only have two choices: stop bombing or arrest us."
Residents have long opposed the Navy's presence on the 33,000-acre island of Vieques off Puerto Rico's east coast. On Vieques, the Navy runs the North Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility, one of the largest live weapons training grounds in the world.
"Sanes Rodriguez's death shows how much danger Vieques residents are in each day," said Robert Rabin of the Committee for the Development of Vieques, an economic development and environmental group that opposes the military presence.
Seeking alternatives to bombing
Gov. Pedro Rossello of the ruling pro-statehood New Progressive Party has called for a permanent halt to live weapons training.
"There must be a viable alternative to the shelling, bombing and strafing of populated areas," he said in an April 20 letter to President Bill Clinton.
And Anibal Acevedo Vila, president of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, has written to House Speaker Dennis Hastert urging a Congressional investigation.
The Navy is still looking into the accident, in which two Marine F/A-18 Hornet jets accidentally bombed an observation point, killing Sanes Rodriguez and injuring three other civilian workers and a Navy officer.
Navy apologizes, but practice may continue
The Navy apologized and said it would indefinitely halt military maneuvers using live ammunition. But Navy officials said the Vieques target range was essential to national defense because it is a unique location where planes and ships can bomb, and troops can be deployed.
Several lawmakers have called for an end to Navy bombing in Vieques or have called for hearings on the matter.
Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said in a letter to Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, "The U.S. Navy cannot, and should not, force the people of Puerto Rico to live in fear for their lives by continuing to use their island for target practice."
Rossello met with Danzig on Friday but little concrete seems to have come from the meeting.
"There was no agreement. We didn't even agree to agree. But I felt the secretary was sincere and wanted an opening to look for alternatives," Rossello said.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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