Vieques Wins Base Battle, But Takes a Hit

For 60 years, American troops have trained on Vieques Island off Puerto Rico. The government bought most of the island because it considered it a perfect place to train sailors and pilots. It's surrounded by ocean, but far from shipping lanes.

Then four years ago, a pilot made a tragic mistake. He dropped two bombs in the wrong place and killed David Sanes, a security guard. Immediately, activists started leading protests against the Navy bombing. They pulled down fences and invaded the property, saying the Navy must leave Vieques.

The activists claimed the bombing caused cancer and polluted the island.

Famous people joined the protests. Al Sharpton went through the fence. So did Robert Kennedy Jr. and actor Edward James Olmos.

Lots of politicians from New York, which has a large Puerto Rican population, got involved too, including Gov. George Pataki, Rep. Charles Rangel, Rep. Jose Serrano, and Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Back in 2000, President Clinton decided the Navy would stop the training in Vieques. "We have not always been good neighbors on Vieques," said Clinton.

President Bush supported that decision.

"These are our friends and neighbors and they don't want us there," Bush said.

Now the military practices its bombing — like this week's test of what they called the "mother of all bombs" — off the coast of Florida.

So what does that mean for the Navy's huge, expensive training base on the mainland of Puerto Rico, 10 miles away from Vieques? It has been home to thousands of troops who had helped support the training-fueling ships and providing shore leave for the sailors.

Close it, says Adm. Robert Natter, because the Navy doesn't need it anymore.

Natter commands the Navy's Atlantic Fleet — 100,000 sailors and Marines now preparing to fight in Iraq.

"My responsibility is to train young sailors and Marines to go into combat. I've got to do that with the money that the taxpayers provide for me. If I can't do that training in Puerto Rico, I quite frankly don't need the facilities there," Natter says.

Local Economy Takes a Hit

That came as a shock to people who live around the base. The base contributes $300 million a year to the local economy.

So now the politicians are upset again.

It's as if some of the protesters want bombs to stop falling from the sky, but they want money to keep falling.

Most of the celebrities and politicians didn't want to be interviewed about that. But Serrano agreed to talk.

Serrano says the protest was only about Vieques, not about the base in Puerto Rico. He says the Navy wants to close that base just to punish the protesters. "They say, we'll fix you. We're getting out. And we're taking everything," Serrano said.

I suggested that funding a bombing support base without bombing was a waste of taxpayer money.

Serrano said, "One could argue that half of the military budget has been a waste of money for a long time."

He says the military shouldn't have any say in closing the base.

"The military doesn't speak in this country. The military keeps quiet," he said, adding, "Let Congress decide if it wants to close that base."

He doesn't think that will happen. With the presidential election coming up and everyone courting Latino votes, he says the Navy will stay put.

"When the president realizes that it's getting close to 2004, and this becomes another Latino political issue again, he's gonna tell them, you don't have to go. And they won't go," Serrano said.

He may be right. With votes at stake, politicians may spend millions on a base the Navy doesn't even want.

Give me a break!