On May 1, there was cause for celebration for the people of Vieques, a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico. For 60 years, the U.S. Navy used a 900-acre firing range on the island for military bombing exercises. Few issues in the past 20 years have enflamed Puerto Ricans on the island and the mainland with as much passion as Vieques.
The Navy formally handed over the territory it occupied to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which is required to develop most of the land as a wildlife refuge. Still, there is much about the future of Vieques that remains unsettled.
The immediate fallout may be economic.
U.S. military planners have reportedly expressed "disappointment" with the "appalling hostility towards sailors and Marines" in Vieques. The Navy has announced layoffs at the nearby Roosevelt Roads base, hinting that without the Vieques training ground, the base is a "drain" on U.S. taxpayer dollars. There are rumors that Roosevelt Roads may close entirely by 2005, which would put a major dent in Puerto Rico's economy.
The environmental legacy of Vieques may be toxic. The Navy and the U.S. government should take more responsibility for testing for contamination of the environment around the bombing grounds. The Pentagon has already acknowledged that depleted uranium munitions were used on Vieques. Puerto Rico Gov. Sila Calderon (acute accent over the o) has called for Vieques to be included on the Environmental Protection Agency's National Priority List for environmental cleanup, which is a good first step. But both the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments need to follow through.
In addition, Calderon is lobbying for some of the land now designated as wildlife refuge to be used for private development, something that long-suffering Vieques residents deserve after 60 years of not having a choice in their economic development. Gains in Vieques' local economy may help offset some of the losses caused by the potential closing of Roosevelt Roads.
The injustice of the Navy's sometimes lethal target exercises brought to light Puerto Rico's subordinate, colonial status. But a new spirit of cooperation between Puerto Rican officials and U.S. politicians helped resolve the issue. Calderon and her predecessor, Pedro Rosello (acute accent over the second o), worked with Presidents Bush and Clinton to get movement on this issue. And the involvement of politicians like Republican New York Gov. George Pataki and Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton, was helpful in resolving the issue.
These new political ties need to be strengthened for Puerto Ricans to enjoy the full range of rights and opportunities afforded to them by their U.S. citizenship, whether they decide to enhance the current commonwealth status, attempt to join the union as a state or declare their independence.
The conflict at Vieques proved, once and for all, that Puerto Rico and its citizens can no longer be easily ignored by the mainland.
Ed Morales is a contributor to the Village Voice and Newsday in New York, and author of "Living in Spanglish" (St. Martin's Press, 2002).