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Presidential Commission Reports on Navy Use of Island for Maneuvers

By Justin O'Brien

A Commission appointed by President Clinton on the U.S. Navy’s use of the island-municipality of Vieques, Puerto Rico reported on October 19 that no other comparable training site for naval maneuvers exists on the entire eastern seaboard of the United States. The Commission’s recommendations that live-fire training and bombing continue for another 5 years while a search is made for an alternative site was opposed by Conference President and Denver Mayor Wellington E. Webb who urged a halt to Navy operations in Vieques, Puerto Rico in a letter to President Clinton.

Webb’s appeal was promised at a press conference hosted by San Juan Mayor Sila M. Calderon held October 8 in Puerto Rico during a U.S. Conference of Mayors Urban Water Summit in Puerto Rico. At that meeting, Mayor Calderon also spoke at a luncheon address in which she told mainland U.S. mayors and other attendees that all Puerto Rican mayors, 78 in total, of rival political parties were adamant that the Navy’s maneuvers in Vieques be ceased.

The Conference of Mayors has prior policy against the Naval use of a neighboring Puerto Rican island, Culebra. This policy was made in 1972 under similar circumstances surrounding the use of Culebra for live-fire bombing and shelling exercises. Webb’s letter to President Clinton said the Conference supported the position asking for a halt to naval operations of Mayor Calderon, an Advisory Board member of the Conference, and that of both Mayor’s organizations in Puerto Rico. The two organizations are the pro-commonwealth Association of Mayors, totaling 24 municipalities and the pro-statehood Federation of Mayors which number 54. The two organizations hold differing views on a preferred political status for Puerto Rico.

The military and U.S. Navy have been involved in Vieques, Puerto Rico for a period of 58 years. The controversial issue has received widespread national publicity in mainland U.S. media including front-page stories and headlines in such national publications as the New York Times and The Washington Post as well as popular television news shows as ’60 Minutes’. It has also resulted in recent Congressional hearings during which the Governor of Puerto Rico, Dr. Pedro Rossello and the island’s non-voting delegate in Congress, Carlos Romero Barcelo, gave testimony urging that the Navy terminate its operations which include bombing, shelling and assault operations in Vieques, where the Navy utilizes 22,000 of the island’s 33,000 acres. The April death of David Sanes during an errant bombing run, 5 miles off-target, galvanized the population at large in Puerto Rico against continued Naval use of Vieques, after decades of sporadic but fragmented vocal discontent.

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