Sunday, July 20, 2003

Stopping the U.S. Navy from conducting live-fire bombing exercises on the tiny Puerto Rican island of Vieques was a hot cause for leftist activists, Hollywood stars and Democrats in Congress in 2001.

The pressure ultimately led to President Bush deciding to end 60 years of live bombing at Vieques — the final wisps of smoke blew in May — and conduct exercises elsewhere, such as the Florida Keys and the North Carolina coast.

But the victory in the Battle of Vieques came at a steep price to the people of Puerto Rico and created a largely unforeseen consequence, the closing of Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, the island’s largest employer.

“If you take the [bombing] mission away from Vieques, you don’t need that base anymore,” said Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, California Republican. “Sometimes you get what you wish for.”

Tucked into the Defense spending bill for 2004 is a provision that will close the base six months after the bill is signed by Mr. Bush. The sprawling base, which once stationed more than 7,000 sailors and employs thousands of Puerto Ricans in support jobs, injects $250 million into the local economy.

“Sure, [Puerto Rico] would like to have the money, but we have other priorities,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis, California Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee. “Many of the protesting organizations had an idea” the base could be closed, “but probably not so quickly.”

Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat and ranking member of the defense subcommittee, said the Navy insisted that without live bombing exercises on Vieques, the base is not worth keeping.

“The Navy is overly committed all over the world, and they need these 3,000 people in other places,” Mr. Murtha said.

Rep. Jose E. Serrano, New York Democrat, is outraged at what he calls the “arrogance” of the Navy. He said the people of Puerto Rico are “panicked” about their future without what is affectionately called “Rosey Roads.”

“I think it’s punishment” for the protests, Mr. Serrano said. “We are being punished for winning an issue against the federal government. The Navy said, ‘Oh yeah. We’re going to fix you. We’re going to close the base.’”

Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he feels sorry for the people of Puerto Rico but that they were “lied to by their politicians” and the protest movement.

“Puerto Rico used every unethical and illegal means to kick us off that live range,” Mr. Inhofe said.

The Senate passed its version of the defense appropriations bill last week. It did not contain language closing the base, but Mr. Inhofe said he expects the base-closing provision to survive in the final version to emerge from conference committee in the coming weeks.

The property containing Roosevelt Roads has been appraised at $1.7 billion. After an environmental cleanup, which could cost around $300 million, the property will be sold with the proceeds going to the Department of Defense.

Mr. Inhofe said not training at Vieques has increased the cost of necessary live-fire exercises elsewhere and has decreased the training’s effectiveness because it is harder to integrate the exercises among the services. The Vieques property has been turned over to the Interior Department, which will retain possession.

“There’s a huge cost associated with losing that range,” Mr. Inhofe said.

Mr. Lewis told Delegate Anibal Acevedo-Vila, Puerto Rico Democrat, that he would “give all the support we possibly can” to replace the economic loss of the base closing. Mr. Murtha said previous base closings have come with $50 million to $100 million aid packages.

Acevedo-Vila spokesman Paul Weiss would not disclose what kind of aid will be sought for Puerto Rico, and still held out hope the Navy would reconsider “rushing away from such a strategic location.”

Mr. Cunningham said he would oppose any aid package to make up for Roosevelt Roads.

“They don’t want us there,” Mr. Cunningham said. “They had a chance to become a state and declined. They don’t pay taxes.”

Mr. Inhofe said it’s now too late to start worrying about the “natural outcome” of the Vieques protests.

“That’s their problem,” Mr. Inhofe said. “The time for them to be concerned about that was when they were kicking us off our range. I told them this would happen.”

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