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Ironduke
06 Jan 04,, 01:44
Navy Sets To Close PR Base
Associated Press
January 5, 2004

CEIBA, Puerto Rico - Navy ships are vanishing from Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, ending an era when defense spending boosted Puerto Rico's economy and the U.S. territory was seen as a strategic asset.

The military has used the base for six decades to keep watch over the Caribbean, and as the outpost closes, with thousands of troops and civilians to leave by March 31, Puerto Rico is losing an economic powerhouse that employed more than 6,000 people and brought an estimated $300 million a year to the island.

Puerto Rican leaders are proposing to turn the base's airstrip into a civilian airport, open its port to cruise ships and attract tourists to its beaches.

Some islanders who see the base as a relic of colonialism are applauding its demise, but others fear for the future now that the United States needs Puerto Rico less for military purposes.

"Everybody is thinking, 'What's going to happen?'" said Jeannette Martes, 46, a base employee whose office job will disappear. "I don't see Puerto Rico progressing. I see Puerto Rico going backward."

When Roosevelt Roads closes, Guantanamo Bay in Cuba will be the only U.S. naval base left in the Caribbean.

Change is already visible in Ceiba, a town of 18,000 outside the base gates in eastern Puerto Rico.

Lunch counters are losing business, and only a few sailors frequent Don's Lighthouse, a once-popular bar where cigarette lighters engraved with ships' names cover a wall.

"A year ago, this bar would have been packed right now," said bartender Lesley Lynch, 28, serving a beer to a lone veteran at happy hour.

The base is named after former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ordered its construction in 1940, and after the roads that crisscross its 8,600 acres. In the following decades thousands of U.S. sailors came to train for conflicts from Vietnam to Afghanistan on the small island of Vieques just off the base.

No ships had their home port at Roosevelt Roads, but destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers passed through constantly for maneuvers or refueling. It was a support base for U.S. invasions of the Dominican Republic in 1965, Grenada in 1983 and Haiti in 1994.

But its main purpose was to oversee bombing exercises on Vieques.

Tensions between the Navy and locals heightened when two errant bombs in 1999 killed a civilian guard on Vieques, leading the Navy to close the range this year. Opponents said the bombing harmed the environment, the health of Vieques' 9,100 residents and its sole industries of fishing and tourism.

Some Puerto Ricans say the departure could mark a realignment in U.S. relations with the territory of 4 million people, which was seized from Spain in 1898.

President Bush recently named a 16-member panel to re-evaluate Puerto Rico's status, under which islanders pay no U.S. income taxes but receive $14 billion yearly in federal funds.

Martes said she fears the U.S. government has decided "if they don't want us, then we don't need them."

Supporters of the small independence movement, meanwhile, say the Navy's departure is a death knell for what they call U.S. colonialism.

Other politicians who support statehood or the status quo disagree, saying the territory of 4 million people retains close ties to the United States.

The Army still has Fort Buchanan near San Juan, and officials say more than 1,000 troops from Puerto Rico are in the Middle East.

Gov. Sila Calderon, who favors the current commonwealth status, initially sought to persuade the Navy to stay. But her delegate to Congress, Anibal Acevedo Vila, says he helped negotiate a "good deal" for Puerto Rico to get lands unclaimed by the U.S. government.

"There are going to be a lot of companies interested in investing," said Acevedo Vila, a gubernatorial candidate who cites building a theme park among possibilities.

A decade ago, Roosevelt Roads was the biggest American naval installation in land area outside the U.S. mainland, with more than 30,000 acres including Vieques lands.

As it closes, Puerto Rico faces 12 percent unemployment island-wide, with higher jobless rates near the base.

Units of Navy SEALS and others have left for mainland bases, saying goodbye to the outpost known as "Roosey Roads." Its hospital will close soon, while schools will stay open until June.

The Navy hasn't allowed journalists to visit, but employees say the airstrip and port are vacant, and housing complexes are clearing out. One officer called it a "ghost town."

The number of troops and civilians is down to 2,200, and some 1,200 contractors are to lose base jobs. Others already have.

"It's sad," said Hipolito Robles, 44, a Navy veteran who lost his contract job as a maintenance supervisor a year ago. "People in Puerto Rico still don't realize the impact it's going to have."

http://www.military.com/NewsContent/0,13319,FL_navy_010504,00.html