Occupation hazards

David Senes Rodriguez was standing guard just outside the observation tower at Camp Garcia, a U.S. Marine base on the island of Vieques at 7 p.m. on April 19. It was a clear night, light breeze. Same as usual on this tropical paradise just off the main island of Puerto Rico.

Inside the tower building, a Naval officer coordinated a practice bombing run while three civilians stood by. Then two 500 pound bombs exploded near the tower, shattering the windows -- and Senes' skull.

A Navy spokesman later said Senes, 34, died quickly -- he bled to death from a gash in his right thigh -- and painlessly, since he was unconscious at the time from massive head trauma.

But Senes' death galvanized long-running opposition to the near-constant bombardment of this tiny island six miles southeast of Puerto Rico, and has raised anew complex questions about tourism, development and the political status of Puerto Rico.

The U.S. Navy took two-thirds of the island by eminent domain, beginning in 1941. The eastern 9,000 acres is a Navy base and munitions storage area, while the west end -- more than 14,000 acres worth -- is a bombing range. It is the only Atlantic bombing range the U.S. military has ever had. And the largest. Troops have trained there for every war from WWII to the current conflict in Kosovo, spending an average of 235 days each year on live fire exercises. The Navy rents out the space, too, earning $80 million a year from other nations that pay for the right to bomb Vieques. An Internet advertisement -- pulled from the web shortly after the accident -- touts the site's "live-fire capability for most non-conventional weapons inventory."

Beginning two days after Senes' death, protesters began camping on the bombing range, erecting white crosses, renaming one of the hills "Mount David," defying the U.S. military to remove them. The Navy suspended bombing while it investigates the accident and has remained mum so far on its causes except to say that the bombs fell three miles from their intended target. Meanwhile, the incident brought Puerto Rico's three main political parties -- which are split generally along the question of whether the island should become a state, an independent nation or remain a colonial outpost -- together in a rare show of unity. All agree the bombardment must stop.

That pressure has given new impetus to a bill proposed by Puerto Rico's non-voting member of Congress, Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barcelo. Romero has tried to get legislation approved that would transfer 8,000 acres of Navy weapons-storage land to the Vieques municipal government. So far, he has watched his Vieques Land Transfer Act die in committee amid protests by Navy brass.

The transfer of military land would not eject the Navy or even end the bombings in Vieques, but it would decrease the military maneuvers' impact on residents.

On March 1, 50 days before the accident, Puerto Rico's senate demanded the Navy stop the bombing, which by then had been going on three weeks. Citing cracks in the walls of homes and schools they blamed on war games in which as many as 20 bombs or shells exploded per minute, the senate voted 18-0, with 9 abstentions, to pass a resolution calling for an end to the bombing. "The island's people have directly suffered the consequences of military air, land and sea exercises for the past 30 years," the resolution says.

But not everyone wants the Navy to leave. "It's a real scary proposition for them to think about giving the land back," says Lin Wetherby, a Realtor who moved to Vieques three years ago from western Massachusetts, "because [Vieques] will become another St. Thomas. Developers will come in. It'll go crazy."

Ironically, the Navy's presence, which has polluted large areas of the 21-by-4 mile island and locked up two-thirds of its prime real estate, has helped preserve the remaining area as that rarest of all destinations: an unspoiled Caribbean island. Travel writers wax poetic about the pristine beaches, the world-class snorkeling and the two "bio-bays," where luminescent one-celled dinoflagellates create a halo of green light on night swimmers. All this in a place with no Holiday Inn, no casino, no 18-hole professional golf course.

But that is changing, too.

Rosewood Hotels & Resorts is developing an upscale resort with 156 beach-front rooms, tennis courts, casual and gourmet restaurants, a 10,000-square-foot spa, private beach club and children's center, slated to open by the end of this year.

Tourism is a key business, and one of the few. About half of the island's 9,000 full-time residents are unemployed. A General Electric manufacturing plant is laying off several hundred workers. Fishermen are limited by both the military and the lack of a strong local market. They want the Navy to leave because the restricted areas make finding fish difficult, and because the warships dump trash in the ocean. Last month a fisherman hauled bags of empty "Meals-Ready-To-Eat" ration bags from the wake of a U.S. ship.

Protests have taken place since the base opened. It closed seven times in the '40s and early '50s but opened eight times, expanding with the U.S. military. The Puerto Rican Independence Party has led the protests, including a 1971 sit-in on the bombing range that resulted in 12 arrests. The protesters spent six months in prison.

The military base shrunk in the mid-1970s, when about 5,000 active-duty Marines were stationed elsewhere. "There used to be a lot of bars and prostitution in Vieques related to the amount of soldiers moving around town. There used to be a lot of rapes and beaten civilians also," says Wanda Bermudez, who grew up on the island before moving to Florida in 1984. Her extended family still lives on Vieques.

When the Marines were moved, bars closed and unemployment jumped. A 1980s effort to spur economic development on the island has failed. Today about 2,400 active-duty personnel run the base, with the help of 956 civilian employees, and the protests continue.

Bermudez remembers a jet drone crashing behind her school. In 1993 five 500-pound bombs fell 10 miles from their target -- and half a mile from civilian homes. A spear fisherman was injured in 1996 when a dummy mine was dropped on the water just above him, and on Mother's Day 1997 protesters attacked three Belgian-Netherlands naval task group ships with bottles, rocks, steel bars and slingshots. One sailor lost an eye, according to a report in Jane's Defense Weekly. The protests came after the battle group cut up the fishing grounds, in what the Navy said was an accident. Also that year a school bus and police car were hit by machine-gun fire that the Navy said had come from the National Guard.

Then there's the cancer. "In 1986 I was diagnosed as having lymphoephitelioma of the neck and nasopharynx," says Bermudez. "On that same summer of 1986, my cousin Minerva was diagnosed with schwanoma, a cancer of the nerve cells. She was my age, my neighbor and my best friend. I recovered from my cancer but my cousin did not. From then to now I have known of many people who have died of cancer in Vieques." Indeed, the Puerto Rican health department reports a 26 percent higher incidence of cancer on Vieques than on the main island.

Senes' death "becomes almost a metaphor for colonialism," Fernando Martin, vice president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, told the Washington Times last week. The Decolonization Committee of the United Nations condemned the U.S. military maneuvers on Vieques in 1980. But with the U.S. closing its base in Panama next year, residents and military observers think it unlikely that the Vieques base will shut down any time soon, and for people like Wetherby, who says she's been visiting the island for 10 years, that's good news. For her the bombs are just a weird part of life, a dangerous blessing and as predictable as the hurricane season.

"You can hear it in the distance," she says, "but it's really not disruptive." Meanwhile, the price of developable land on Vieques has risen 20 percent each of the last three years.

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