The US Navy could lose a premier training ground after failing to appease the government and residents of Puerto Rico. The island-municipality of Vieques, which the US bought in the 1940s for $1.5 million, is considered an ideal setting for simulated ground and air attacks with live bombs.
But following the accidental death this year of an island resident, Puerto Rican officials are likely to block the Navy and Marines from staging more exercises.
The dispute raises accusations that the Pentagon has bullied Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of US citizens who have neither the right to vote nor representation in Washington.
"Nowhere in the 50 states would you have military exercises like the ones at Vieques," says Charles Kamasaki of the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights group in Washington.
Critics accuse the Navy of using live ordnance too close to civilian populations and of breaking a 1983 agreement to limit exercises on the firing range.
The Pentagon has admitted using radioactive uranium-depleted bullets, napalm, and cluster bombs. At least one study reported that residents of Vieques have had significantly higher cancer rates than other Puerto Ricans - a charge the Navy denies.
With a US battle group scheduled to use the island Dec. 1, President Clinton is in a tight jam on an issue that has drawn the attention of everyone from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Puerto Rican pop star Ricky Martin.
If Mr. Clinton allows the Pentagon to resume exercises, he will alienate Puerto Ricans in the states and on the islands, who overwhelmingly oppose testing. If he sides against the Pentagon, he could face the wrath of Republicans in Congress who think he is weak on defense issues.
Several resolutions for and against testing are being considered on the Hill, and a presidential panel has recommended the Navy phase out the program over five years - a proposal that does not meet the Puerto Ricans' demands. Last week Clinton told a Spanish-language television station he was sympathetic for Vieques's 9,300 residents.
"We don't want to be in the position of jamming down the throat of Puerto Rico one bad memory after another," he said.
On the island itself, protesters - including fishermen, teachers, politicians, and religious groups - are gathering daily in what is becoming a top priority in an otherwise divided political scene.
One protester, Carlos Ventura, the president of a local fisherman's association, was ferrying demonstrators to the island on his boat. "For us, the Navy is the root of all that is wrong here," says the powerfully built man. "Before the Navy came, there was double the population that there is today - and everyone was working."
Pentagon officials say the island - eight miles from Roosevelt Rhodes, the largest Navy base in the world - is irreplaceable because of the deep water around it and the lack of air traffic above. It's where about 30,000 soldiers train every year, including the Navy bombers who flew missions in Iraq and Kosovo.
Puerto Rico is also home to other US military bases and is considered a key outpost in efforts to stop the flow of illegal drugs to the mainland.
The dispute over Vieques is forcing some Puerto Ricans to question their support of such missions. If Vieques is unavailable for Dec. 1 training, ships could still be deployed, but with a "significant degradation," says Navy Cmdr. Jos Vazquez.
"These are the most realistic conditions available," he says. "You can't just take the folks on an aircraft carrier and move them to Arizona."
The Navy has faced resistance since it vacated a base on the island of Culebra and expanded operations on Vieques in 1975. Pentagon officials say they boost the local economy, but activists say the Navy employs 120 people on an island with a 60 percent jobless rate.
Puerto Rican officials first brought legal action against the US in 1977, and two years later a federal judge in San Juan ruled that the Navy was violating the Clean Water Act and operating without having completed an environmental-impact study on Vieques. In 1983, both sides signed an agreement in which the Navy said it would decrease its live firing - but Puerto Ricans say it only increased.
"The Navy has arrogantly ignored the commitment we made in good faith," says Carlos Romero Barcello, Puerto Rico's nonvoting delegate to Congress.
The Vieques movement was not galvanized until April 19, when a Navy pilot dropped two 500-pound bombs off course, killing a civilian security guard at the base and injuring four others. The accident was blamed on pilot and communications errors.
Since then, demonstrators have camped out on the range and the Navy has had to suspend operations. Each Saturday, some 300 protesters hold a vigil outside one military site. "When the Navy makes its next move, we'll make our next move," says Oscar Ortiz, a union worker. "If they want to arrest us, we're prepared. They're going to have to arrest all the people of Puerto Rico."
Many Puerto Ricans feel betrayed by the US military, which they have served in greater percentages than have mainland citizens. While few Puerto Ricans support independence from the US, they are divided over whether to remain a commonwealth or become a 51st state - an issue analysts say is unlikely to be affected by the Navy operations on Vieques.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society