Published January 13, 2015
In a symbolic gesture, residents of Vieques voted for the U.S. Navy to immediately stop all bombing on the island and for the Navy's eventual departure.
Sixty-eight percent of voters in the nonbinding referendum want all bombing to stop immediately and the Navy to withdraw by 2003, while about 30 percent want the Navy to stay and resume the use of live munitions, according to the electoral commission. Less than two percent of voters supported the President's plan to resume bombing with inert bombs and a 2003 end to all Navy activities.
The Navy rejected the vote, saying the outcome "will have no impact on the Navy or our focus," according to Lt. Cmdr. Kate Mueller.
While a legally binding referendum is scheduled for November, that vote will offer a choice between Navy withdrawal by 2003 with dummy bombing continuing until then or allowing the Navy to stay and use live ammunition — options that earned a total of about 32 percent of Sunday's vote — and will not offer the option of an immediate end to exercises.
Puerto Rico Gov. Sila M. Calderon has said Sunday's results carry "moral force" that she hopes will influence the U.S. government.
Debate over the Navy's presence on the island was renewed after the 1999 a civilian guard was killed when two bombs were dropped off-target. Since then, protesters have regularly invaded the range to stop bombing runs. The Rev. Al Sharpton and environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. are currently in jail for participating in those protests.
Some Vieques residents also say that the higher-than-normal cancer and infant mortality rates on the island are due to the Navy's use of spent uranium in ammunition fired on the test range. The Navy denies that any contamination has occurred and says that local studies are biased.
Not all Vieques natives, however, object to the Navy's presence. Supporters say they are a silent majority afraid of speaking out against the occasionally violent protesters.
Some Republicans want to raise the stakes in the scheduled November referendum to a vote on all the U.S. military in Puerto Rico.
That would include the vast Roosevelt Roads Naval Station that administers Vieques and employs more than 5,000 military and civilian employees and Fort Buchanan in San Juan with 2,100 Army personnel.
"If they want the benefits of the military," such as the jobs, they must take the training as well, Rep. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania said Thursday.
Two weeks ago the Navy announced a program of compensation that would pay fishermen $100 for each day that bombing exercises prevent them working, and grants of up to $25,000 to start small businesses. Many say that's too little, too late.
If they gave me $100,000, I wouldn't take it," Felix said. "All these years they never gave us anything but problems. Now they want to give us money? It's like trying to buy us."
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.