Puerto Rican isle a target for both tourists, bombs

November 11, 1990|By Dallas Morning News

ISABEL SEGUNDA, Puerto Rico -- Vieques is an island with a dual personality. It is a tourist destination and a target.

Vacationers frolic on its stunning tropical beaches. The U.S. Navy makes large craters with explosive shells or sends in the Marines.

Even before Hurricane Hugo hovered over Vieques for 12 devastating hours, some portions looked like a war zone.

Many residents have feuded with the Navy for more than a decade. They complain that live fire, even if confined to remote sites, is deadly to the island's economic future.

The Navy owns more than two-thirds of Vieques, the premier training area for the Atlantic fleet. Every year, thousands of shells and bombs pound a quarter-mile-square "target impact area" on the eastern tip. The Navy occupies both ends of the island, almost 20 miles long and 4 miles wide; Vieques' 8,000 residents live in the middle.

Fending off court challenges, complaints by the Puerto Rican government and community antipathy, the Navy is determined to stay.

The most recent evidence of that determination is a new checkpoint with armed guards and a fence, erected to prevent squatters on Navy property from rebuilding their Hugo-ravaged homes. The new fence line was moved to take in a larger area still on Navy land.

Only a handful of families remain -- those whose homes were not destroyed and who have lived there for several years.

In 1985, the Navy began a policy of halting further encroachment on its property. Newcomers were forced out. Families who had lived in the area before 1985 "were asked to cease any further development while the Navy searched for a solution to the problem," Navy spokesman Lt. Hal Pittman said in a statement.

By the Navy's definition, Victor Ayala, 46, is part of the problem. He was born in the squatter community behind the fence. He believes that the land should belong to the people of Vieques, not the Navy, which he describes as "invaders."

Although the land was purchased in the early 1940s, Navy activity on Vieques increased dramatically in the mid-70s. After years of opposition from residents and the Puerto Rican government, the Navy had stopped using the neighboring island of Culebra for target practice.

The Navy buildup on Vieques sparked violent protests, and tempers have flared periodically ever since. In April, two Navy vehicles were burned when U.S. marshals tried to enforce an eviction order.

Municipal Secretary Emilio Ortiz complains of airplanes flying too low over neighborhoods and the noise from exploding shells. Residents point to cracks in their homes that they claim were caused by the concussion. The noise and the lack of room for expansion are considered obstacles to growth of tourism.

But Mr. Ortiz also acknowledges the Navy's efforts to help Vieques residents. After the hurricane, it helped restore power and water and rebuilt roads. More than 100 civilians are employed by the Navy on Vieques in security, maintenance or housekeeping jobs. The Navy participates in organizations to encourage economic development and works with fishermen to minimize disruptions of their livelihood.

Some residents accept the Navy operations as a reasonable price for the federal benefits the island receives.

"The Navy will never leave here -- it belongs to them," said Antonio Perez Castro, 39, an auto body worker. "I am Puerto Rican, but I am also a realist. . . . The only thing that Puerto Rico gives to the United States is me -- when I was in the Army."

A majority of Vieques' population receives federal assistance. By some estimates, unemployment exceeds 50 percent. Many leave to find work.

Genero Christian, 45, staggered under the weight of a large headstone for his mother's grave as he walked off the ferry, the main link to the outside world. He was born on Vieques but has lived in Baytown, Texas, for more than a decade.

"There's no work here," he said. "I'm out of here as soon as I take this to my mother."

Fisherman Jorge Luis Romero, 37, is an Army veteran who returned home. He believes that the Navy threatens his livelihood.

From his boat, he points to a bombarded beach -- a pocked moonscape where shredded tropical plants struggle to survive. Huge projectiles jut from the sand at haphazard angles. Instead of seashells, the beach is littered with shrapnel.

The outlines of other shells can be spotted on the seabed. Sometimes, Mr. Romero said, they cause large fish kills. "If we kill a turtle, we are fined or jailed," he said. "But they kill as many as they want."

Lieutenant Pittman said the Navy "closely scrutinizes all its operations to ensure that safety and protection of the environment is foremost." It designates turtle-nesting sites as off-limits before amphibious landings.

"The Navy," he said, "makes every effort to be a good neighbor to the people of Vieques."

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