Peace Time: November 9, 1999


THE VIEQUES CONTROVERSY: The tiny island of Vieques lies about 7 miles from the eastern tip of Puerto Rico (where Roosevelt Roads Naval Station is located). The US Navy owns about 2/3 of the island. The western quarter is used as an ammunition dump, while the eastern half is used as an amphibious training area with three excellent beaches for Marines to practice landings on. (Two towns, Isabla Segunda and Esperanza, lie in between.) The eastern tip of Vieques is the heart of the problem, in that it is the Atlantic Fleet's only live fire gunnery range for naval artillery. Ships deploying to the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf stop at Vieques to fire their guns, and Marine troop transports stop here for practice landings. This has been going on for 50 years.
And so has the controversy. Puerto Ricans have long complained about the noise and danger of the firing range. This was exacerbated last April when a Puerto Rican civilian, employed by the US Navy as a security guard to keep people from wandering into the gunnery range, was killed by a bomb dropped just outside of the target zone. Outraged Puerto Ricans quickly moved into the firing range and camped out, effectively shutting it down. Atlantic Fleet ships have been prevented from their routine gunnery training since that time, and may lose it forever. Congress ordered a panel to study the issue, and that panel recommended on 18 Oct that the Navy give up its live fire training on the island and find somewhere else to conduct it. The Navy is not pleased, insisting that there is nowhere else with the unique combination of conditions that make Vieques so perfect. They point out the relatively uninhabited area, the lack of commercial air and sea traffic, and the excellent hydrography and geology. Moving live fire training to another site would also require moving the ammunition dump and practice landing beaches, making the proposition extremely expensive. Spending money to replace facilities it already has would reduce the Navy's budget for ships and training. Critics have charged that closing down the firing range could be politically motivated, in that Hillary Clinton has sought the Puerto Rican vote in the New York senate race. The White House has denied any connection. --Stephen V Cole


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