Washington Outlook/Congress/White House

Puerto Rico's Woman Governor Takes on U.S. Navy

Sunday, April 22, 2001

Sila Calderon, Puerto Rico's first woman governor, is demanding the U.S. Navy immediately abandon its bombing range on Vieques. Her passion and determination have put her on a collision course with Washington. A showdown is expected this week.

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Governor Sila Calderon

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (WOMENSENEWS)--With just over 100 days in office, Gov. Sila Calderon has managed to intensify the political battle to oust the U.S. Navy from its prized Atlantic bombing range on the smaller island of Vieques. A skillful and relentless campaigner, she is winning stateside political support while placing the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico on a collision course with Washington.

This week will be critical to resolution, if any, of the Vieques dispute.

Calderon is expected Monday, April 23 to sign into law a bill regulating noise levels at sea, effectively banning the bombing exercises that create sonic booms. The Navy announced April 12 that it will resume training exercises, using dummy bombs, on Friday, April 27. The Navy could seek permission from President George W. Bush to escape the requirements of the new law.

Calderon, a former corporate executive and mayor of San Juan, expressed her intention to stop the bombing now.

She said the Navy's announcement is unacceptable.

"It is offensive because it was given on Holy Thursday, a day of deep religious significance and a Christian tradition for Puerto Ricans," the governor said. "It is unacceptable because it crassly and insensitively ignores health findings that are under consideration and evaluation."

Puerto Ricans will also have a chance to vote on a referendum next November on whether the Navy should leave the island in three years or be permitted to stay indefinitely. Calderon rejects the premise of putting the issue up to a vote, saying the Navy should leave immediately.

Puerto Rico, a Spanish-speaking commonwealth of 3.8 million residents, has been a U.S. territory since 1898. The Navy has used Vieques as a firing range for the past 60 years, and its bombs killed a civilian guard two years ago. The Navy controls two-thirds of the island, about 800 miles off the U.S. coast, and about 9,300 civilians live on the remainder of an island that wishes to attract more tourist trade.

Vast Majority of Puerto Ricans Oppose U.S. Bombing Range

Calderon, supported by an overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans, wants the United States to stop lobbing bombs and firing rockets from the sea at Vieques. She and others argue that Vieques residents suffer health problems, including cancer, cardiovascular conditions and high infant mortality--all linked to the bombardment. The U.S. Navy says the bombing range is critical to U.S. military preparedness and dismisses as biased and inconclusive Puerto Rican reports that medical problems are linked to the bombing.

"Our people have never avoided the responsibility to contribute to the common defense of the United States," Calderon said when she was inaugurated as the island's first woman governor in January. "But 60 years of threats to the health and safety of our compatriots is unacceptable to a civilized and peaceful society."

The bombing practice has dominated politics and society for the past two years, since two 500-pound bombs fired off-target during a routine exercise killed a civilian guard. A month after his death in April 1999, protesters occupied the range for a year, preventing exercises until federal authorities cleared the area of protesters and began arresting trespassers in May 2000.

Calderon, who campaigned to oust the Navy from Vieques, has adopted a three-pronged strategy to end the bombing that has become an emotional and political issue on this Caribbean island.

  • Casting the problem as a health crisis affecting the people of Puerto Rico, and not raising the territorial status issue in a contest between Puerto Rico and the United States.
  • Introducing a bill in the Puerto Rican Legislature regulating noise levels at sea; by setting low levels it would effectively ban all ship-to-shore shelling on the Vieques target range.
  • Tapping the growing Hispanic political influence in the United States and enlisting support from key stateside politicians. Most recently New York Republican Gov. George E. Pataki visited the tiny island and called for an end to the bombing.

"This is not a partisan issue, this is a human rights issue," Pataki said. "I am not convinced, was not convinced and have not been convinced that Vieques is the only spot for training. There must be an alternative to this beautiful spot."

Navy Dismisses Study of Bombing-Linked Health Risks as 'Unscientific'

Gov. Calderon's efforts suffered a setback last week when a Navy-funded review discredited a local health study that reported the bombing practices posed serious cardiovascular risk to civilians.

The local tests, conducted in December and February by the Ponce School of Medicine in the city of Ponce, found that a high rate of Vieques residents--27 percent higher than in the rest of Puerto Rico--had an abnormal thickening of tissue around the heart. This was linked to sonic boom noise levels emitted in the waters during ship-to-shore shelling exercises around the small island, concludes the study. Dummy bombs, which the Navy intends to use this week, can also create sonic booms.

The findings were declared inconclusive by an independent stateside review conducted by the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health at the request of the Navy, with the approval of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

Studies about women's health have not been conducted, but last Thursday Calderon released partial findings of a study showing that children ages 8 to 18 on Vieques have a higher percentage of cardiovascular anomalies than those on the larger island city of Ponce.

Key Stateside Politicians Call for End to Bombing

A Republican majority in Congress supports the Pentagon in its efforts to continue the Navy's use of the island, but Pataki, a Republican, is expected to weigh in.

Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, which has more than one million Puerto Rican inhabitants, also wants the Navy to leave Vieques. Earlier this month, the Hispanic Caucus in the House of Representatives lobbied President Bush to put an end to the bombing.

Sila Calderon's uncompromising stance on Vieques--and Puerto Rico's complex relationship with the United States--helped catapult her pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party to victory last November over the pro-statehood New Progressive Party of two-term Gov. Pedro Rossello. Her own victory was a narrow one.

At present, island residents hold U.S. citizenship, enjoy limited self-government modeled on the U.S. two-party system, with a third party holding a small minority, and a governor. The island receives approximately $13 billion per year in federal funds, and residents pay no federal income taxes. Puerto Ricans have fought in every major war this century but they cannot vote for president and they have one non-voting representative in Congress.

As Puerto Rico's first woman governor, Calderon represents a trend among women who have progressed to leadership positions in male-dominated professions. Calderon pointedly did not capitalize on her gender during the campaign, transcending a history of such emphasis in a Latin culture.

Calderon Says Her Ideas and Policies, Not Her Gender, Are Important

"Many headlines about my inauguration highlighted the fact that I am a woman, which is true. Others pointed out that I am the first woman governor of Puerto Rico, which is also true. But in the debate about personalities over ideas, I hope my ideas and policies will stand on their own," she told Hispanic journalists.

"Her election represents a huge step forward, not only for Puerto Rican women, but for Latin American women," said Dr. Maria Teresa Berio, former chair of the island's Women's Affairs Commission. "She is a pioneer who breaks the ice, just as one or two women doctors and lawyers did when those fields were closed to us."

Calderon spent a decade as a corporate executive, first as a vice president for Citibank, and later as president of her family's real estate firm. She served as chief of staff and later as secretary of state under Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon, before becoming mayor of San Juan for four years. Then she ran for governor.

During her campaign, Calderon also promised to fight government corruption and to help poor communities, which she calls "special communities." She is focusing on 400 of them and trying to provide better housing, recreation centers and recreation and cultural programs. She has promised to repair schools and provide more books, computers and security.

Calderon is pro-choice, as was her predecessor. While local anti-abortion groups and religious conservatives, Roman Catholics and Pentecostals, are vocal, Puerto Rico does not have a significant anti-abortion movement.

Women-Headed Households Have Half the Income of Those in Mississippi

She also is trying to help women heads of households. Current census data are not available, but the number of women-headed households is increasing. Ten years ago there was a 28-percent increase in women as heads of households and at that time their average income was $6,600--less than half that of the poorest U.S. state, Mississippi.

But the Vieques issue is dominant. It has united Puerto Ricans of all political stripes to demand the departure of the Navy. A directive signed by President Clinton in January 2000 established a deadline for the Vieques population, about 9,300 people, to hold a referendum, set for this November: Either the Navy leaves in three years, or it continues to use the range indefinitely. Clinton allowed exercises to resume until the referendum, but live ammunition is not permitted.

Calderon rejected the 2000 Vieques Agreement, as it is called in Washington, winning tremendous popularity for her insistence that the bombing is immoral and must end immediately.

President Bush has so far supported the directive signed by President Clinton, and told the House Hispanic Caucus this month, "I think I am bound by the present agreement. ... I don't know if I will have the flexibility to do anything about it."

Calderon emphasizes that Puerto Ricans treasure their citizenship and are faithful to democratic principles, but she also says, "We are, above everything, Puerto Ricans first and foremost."

Caryn Nesmith, a journalist based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, has worked in the United States, Europe and Latin America.

For more information, visit:

History of U.S. Navy in Vieques, including news reports and studies:
http://www.vieques-island.com/board/navy/

President Clinton's directive on Vieques:
http://www.vieques-island.com/clinton.html

Information about the U.S. Navy's Activities on the Island of Vieques:
http://www.navyvieques.navy.mil/

 
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