PUERTO RICAN government hopes vote will speed U.S. Navy's departure

Sunday, July 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Nearly 60 years after the U.S. Navy launched its first bombing exercises on Vieques, residents of the outlying island voted Sunday in a referendum many hope will speed the military's withdrawal.

Some voters arriving at polling stations flashed one another the peace sign _ a gesture that has also come to mean ``option No. 2'' on the referendum: an immediate stop to the exercises.

``From the time I was old enough to know what they were doing to my island, I wanted them to leave,'' said Candido L. Felix, who said he was born in 1940, the year the Navy came to Vieques.

Sunday's vote is not legally binding _ the federal referendum is scheduled for November _ but carries symbolic weight as an expression of islanders' desires for Vieques' future.

In November, the U.S. territory's 5,900 registered voters will choose either the Navy's withdrawal by 2003 with dummy bomb exercises continuing until then, or letting the Navy stay and resume exercises with live ammunition.

Sunday's local vote is over the addition of a popular second option: the immediate end to the military exercises, the eventual withdrawal of the Navy and a cleanup of allegedly contaminated land.

Resentment over the Navy's appropriation of two-thirds of this 18-mile-long island has grown over the decades and exploded into anger with the 1999 death of a civilian guard killed by two 500-pound bombs dropped off-target.

Protesters invaded the range and camped there for a year before federal marshals forcibly removed them and the local government agreed to resume exercises with dummy bombs.

Since then, the island has become a cause celebre, with protesters regularly invading land to stop bombing runs. Another round of exercises is to start Wednesday.

Islanders also say the bombings are making them ill; the Navy strongly denies harming the environment or islanders' health.

Navy supporters warn that voting against the military could worsen the island's already troubled relations with Washington and endanger some $14 billion in annual federal aid. About 9,000 people live on Vieques and another 4 million on the main island.

On Saturday, a cavalcade of about 200 cars painted with signs demanding ``Not one more bomb'' and ``Navy, go,'' wound its way through town with flapping Puerto Rican flags.

The United States seized Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898. Islanders are U.S. citizens who cannot vote for president but have fought in major conflicts from World War II to Vietnam.