(By Déborah Santana, continued)
Part 3 • Devolution
Over the years viequenses have struggled to recover lands taken by the military in a variety of ways. For example, during the 1970s many took part in “land invasions” and set up homesteads on lands held by the Navy but essentially unused, particularly lands bordering the civilian sector (Rabin 1999; Giusti 1999). These “communities of resistance,” such as Villa Borinquen, were eventually transferred to the municipality of Vieques—though many residents still do not have title to their property. In addition, in 1994 the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques testified in Congress in favor of a bill to return the western lands to local control; two years later the Committee collaborated with Columbia University’s Urban Technical Assistance Project to publish a western land use plan detailing residential, agricultural and conservation zones (UTAP and CRDV 1996). Even during the year between April 1999 and May 2000—when fourteen protest camps in the far eastern lands bombing range blocked the Navy from using it—protesters planted trees, built a church and school, and set up solar panels as they witnessed nature’s own attempts to reclaim and restore lands after decades of military-induced environmental degradation. It was clear to most observers that a resolution to the political crisis between Puerto Rico and the United States provoked by the Vieques issue should address the future of the lands in question.
On January 31, 2000, President Clinton and Puerto Rico Governor Rosselló agreed to remove the protest camps and resume Navy training. Instead of issuing an executive order, Clinton issued a presidential directive, which would require legislation and therefore could be changed by Congress. Key points stipulated that, firstly, bombing would resume for up to 90 days per year with “inert” (non-explosive) bombs. Secondly, viequenses would vote—on a date set by the Navy—between only two options: either Navy bombings could continue only until May 2003, in exchange for $40 million dollars, or permanent live fire would resume, in exchange for an extra $50 million. The most popular option—the immediate and permanent end to Navy training—was not included. Thirdly, Puerto Rico would police the area near the bases, and agree not to file lawsuits.
Finally, the western lands would be cleaned up, and—except for the military radar and radio complexes—would be transferred to Puerto Rico by December 31, 2000 (Clinton 2000).
The Navy officially accepted the directives. But its allies in Congress vowed to change them, since they did not guarantee indefinite and unlimited use of Vieques and included a civilian vote on military practices; meanwhile, in Puerto Rico activists denounced the plan as a fraud. Not surprisingly, in October 2000 an amendment (found in Sections 1503–1508) was added to the Fiscal year 2001 National Defense Authorizations Act, popularly known as the “Spence Act,” that changed the presidential directive. First, the Navy would not leave the western lands until May 2001, six months after the U.S. and Puerto Rico elections; moreover, instead of giving all those lands back to Puerto Rico for the benefit of Vieques, as the directives had stated, most of the lands would be split between the municipal government of Vieques and the U.S. Dept of the Interior. The land transfer was carried out in a hurried meeting in Washington, D.C, on April 30, 2001. The mayor of Vieques was not present, because—along with hundreds of others—he was in the bombing range impeding Navy exercises at the time.
Fourteen of the 17 toxic sites identified by the Navy are located in the lands given to the municipality; those areas would therefore remain under Navy control until a cleanup was completed. The Navy additionally restricted use of over 600 acres turned over to Vieques and the Interior Department but near the radar and radio complex sites, also retaining rights of way in civilian roads and ports. Worst of all: the law declared that if Vieques residents voted in the planned referendum to remove the Navy the eastern lands would be transferred completely to the Department of the Interior; in particular, the bombing range would be declared a “wilderness area”—even though it hardly qualifies under the Wilderness Act as an area “untrammeled by man” (U.S. Congress 1964)—and simply closed to the public, thus putting in doubt any meaningful cleanup. If carried out as written, this act would once again confine the viequenses between contaminated and restricted federal lands. Indeed, the Memorandum of Agreement of May 1, 2003, signed by the Navy and the Department of the Interior, arranged for an administrative transfer of the eastern lands to the latter precisely under the terms specified by the Spence Act. Again, a meaningful demilitarization of the lands should include adequate cleanup and rehabilitation for nonmilitary use, which the current law does not provide.
One of the arguments offered by congressional authors of the change to the Presidential directive regarding land disposition was that retaining federal control over the lands as a wildlife refuge would protect them from private developers and giant tourism projects. The fact that these congressional leaders were noted for their opposition to environmental legislation and had fiercely opposed an end to military use of Vieques—and made no attempt to hide their contempt for Puerto Ricans—cast doubt upon their alleged concern for the island’s ecological or economic wellbeing. Nonetheless, the wave of real estate speculation presently occurring in the civilian sector indicates that it could also become a problem in lands not under FWS control (although even under FWS business concessions could be granted to outside interests). Should Vieques activists eventually succeed in their lobbying efforts to revise the Vieques-related sections of the Spence Law and achieve the transfer of federally controlled lands to Puerto Rican or municipal control, some mechanism to prevent land speculation must be enacted and enforced, in order to avoid “the Navy’s replacement by Hilton,” as more than one local activist has warned.