August 30, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOPuerto Rico’s attention will once again shift to the Isla Nena of Vieques this Labor Day weekend, as the Navy prepares to launch a new round of military maneuvers starting on Sept. 3.

Maybe then, people will notice the newspaper war that has been raging on the island for months now.

Much has been made of the $40 million the Navy has pledged to spend on Vieques, but the biggest impact felt in the streets of the island municipality has been through a $2.4 million "mini-grant" program, where residents wanting to start or expand businesses were given up to $25,000 a pop.

The program was hurriedly launched weeks before the July 29, 2001 referendum called by Gov. Calderón, and several sizeable grants were given out in the days before the vote.

Then after a months-long lull, several other grants were given out before the program came to a pre-mature finish in March, well before the end of its expected year-long life-span. It was also at a time when it became clear that President Bush was serious about ordering the force off Vieques by May 2003.

Few in Puerto Rico have paid much attention to the mini-grant program, but for months now, it has been part of the everyday chatter in Isabela Segunda and the south coast settlement of Esperanza.

The program was perhaps the strongest card in the Navy plan to win over the local populace before the plug was pulled on the federal referendum to decide the Navy’s future on Vieques.

Local discontent over the issue is perhaps the best evidence yet that the goal set for the Navy after the accidental death of David Sanes Rodriguez in 1999 — to show that it could after 60 years be a good neighbor after all — was always an impossible dream.

Says one entrepreneur who benefited from the program: "It was successful in the sense that they dumped a lot of money in the local economy like they said they would. No matter who they gave it to, there were going to be people who complained."

The program has funded some worthy ventures to be sure, such as a company dedicated to giving low-impact tours of the island’s wondrous bioluminescent bay, real hotel expansions that did create jobs and new graphic art ventures.

But anyone in town will tell you about the guy who took off to Texas with his $25,000 instead of investing it in a boat or the guy who bought a new Corvette with his money. Another $10,000 was granted to a seedy tavern for a chicken rotisserie and a new bar. The place, not surprisingly, was the site of many pro-Navy rallies.

Some residents complain that the office of Crystal View Technology Corp, the people running the mini-grant program for the Navy, was packed with associates of former New Progressive Party Mayor Manuela Santiago, who made sure their pro-statehood, pro-Navy friends who owned businesses received grants.

Some North American hoteliers who have expressed support for the Navy, meanwhile, are complaining about reverse discrimination, saying they were unfairly shut out of the grants, which were used to try and buy Puerto Rican votes.

If the Navy had $40 million to spend, many residents are wondering why it capped the program at $2.4 million, especially when it still had $17 million left to spend after pulling the plug on it.

One of the most interesting developments has been that the mini-grant program ignited a newspaper war in the island municipality.

Both Vieques Events and El Nuevo Vieques were launched in February to compete against the long-standing Vieques Times, which has increasingly become a thorn in the Navy’s side since protests against its war games erupted in the wake of Sanes Rodriguez’s death.

Vieques Events, like the Vieques Times, is a newsletter format monthly, while El Nuevo Vieques is a tabloid quarterly publication. All three publications are bilingual.

(A fourth publication La voz de Vieques is dedicated to the protest movement and does not accept advertising.)

Both new publications are benefiting from the new Navy-backed businesses advertising their offerings, and Vieques Events is a direct recipient of a mini-grant — an unusual instance of the federal government doling out its dollars for new media ventures.

Yet, you’d be hard-pressed to find the word "Navy" in either of them.

Their basic approach to news is best illustrated in the similar well-meaning condolence articles, published in their inaugural editions, to the friends and family of a local businessman who passed away. "Pete," as the deceased was known, may be "missed" at both publications, but neither saw fit to mention the fact that he died during an armed robbery in his own home on the main street of the Esperanza tourism district.

Of the two, Vieques Events is the most blatant about its unwavering desire to report nothing that might upset the day’s Happy Hour conversation.

An ad for El Sombrero Viejo bar pokes fun at health concerns expressed by anti-Navy protest groups. "Have a blast! Get bombed out! Get a depleted uranium glow-on!," screams the advertising, which lists the bar’s address as "Vieques Island — The Politicians Paradise."

Patrons can enjoy its "vibro-acoustic jukebox" while trying one of the bar’s specialty drinks: "cancer cocktails, ROTHR rum, earth shaking sangria, contaminated beer."

With only two issues under its belt, El Nuevo Vieques’s editorial line is not nearly as defined.

Meanwhile, the Vieques Times, whose anti-Navy message is seen by many as bad for business, has been losing advertisers to its new competitors

Its Tourism Supplement on its web edition tells readers that "it has diminished in size as certain advertisers have pulled out in response to the ‘negative’ aspect of the news reported. In other words, there are those who consider us bad for business. And they have investments to protect."

"We feel the only way to protect anyone's investment is to stop the bombing. It's also a matter of survival."

The paper, run by the quotable Charlie Connelly and his talented wife Myrna Pagán, has been an important community voice for over 15 years.

It was born when a pair of developers tried to fence off the only public beach in Esperanza, and since then the Times has continued to stay on top of important issues in Vieques in ways the big Puerto Rican dailies never would.

Increasingly, that has meant going after the Navy, and the Times has done it with relish, attacking "the guys in the white shoes" on all fronts: calling the maneuvers it practices on Vieques "outdated," discussing the potential health and environmental consequences of that training and examining the Navy’s negative impact on the local economy.

In arguing that the Navy has made a good business renting out its bombing range to foreign governments and private weapons manufacturers, the Vieques Times web edition has reconstructed portions of the Navy’s infamous "One Stop Shopping" website blatantly pitching the range to potential customers.

The Vieques bombing range provides "excellence in all warfare areas with the right vision of the future…yields high return on investment…..scheduled as requested," according to the site.

The site says the bombing range "mission is to consistently provide professional customer services, conduct real world anti-submarine warfare training for aircrafts, ships and submarines of the US and foreign navies."

It also boasts "live fire capability for most non-conventional weapons inventory" and "growth potential — the gateway for supporting next millennium fleet requirements and weapons systems developments."

The Navy quickly shut down the site after criticism first erupted over it in 1999, but it’s still there to see on the Vieques Times website.

Did the Navy know what it was doing when it financed a direct competitor of the Times?

Who knows? But the fact remains that the new publications are taking ad dollars away from the Times that could help wipe out one of the Navy’s most vocal critics anywhere.


John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: