Puerto Rico seeks to protect its lone military base

Delegation offers plan to sell off part of National Guard property in order to avoid base closing.

A Puerto Rican government delegation was in Washington this week seeking to shield Ft. Buchanan, the island's lone remaining U.S. military installation, from the upcoming 2005 base-closing round.

The group presented to Pentagon officials a plan to enhance Buchanan's military value, as well as the economic and social benefits it offers to the Defense Department and the 15,000 reserve forces in Puerto Rico.

Eduardo Bhatia, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said part of the plan would involve selling off a Puerto Rican National Guard property -- worth an estimated $30 million -- and consolidating the Puerto Rico Army National Guard with U.S. Army reservists at Buchanan, an effort they say would create savings for the Army Reserve.

But first, Puerto Rico officials must persuade lawmakers to lift a three-year-old building moratorium on the base to allow for construction, including a $30 million National Guard headquarters at Buchanan funded by the sale of the guard facility.

Although it is unclear whether House and Senate authorizers will remove the ban in defense authorization legislation this year, Bhatia said the Pentagon supports the idea.

"Of all the people we met with, 100 percent in the Pentagon wanted the moratorium lifted," Bhatia said. "It has created a problem in terms of recruiting personnel, for preparing Guard and reservists for work they have to do out in Iraq."

The moratorium was put in place in 2002 as an interim measure that was directly linked to continuing Navy training at Vieques Island. When the Navy closed Roosevelt Roads Naval Station near Vieques last year, taking with it 6,000 jobs and an estimated $300 million annually, the building moratorium on Buchanan remained.

"We are very enthusiastic for the future, but we need to lift this moratorium right away," Bhatia said, adding that the ban is so vaguely worded that officials at Buchanan recently questioned whether it was legal to repaint some buildings.

The U.S. military presence is a divisive issue in Puerto Rico, although the government supports increased investment in the last remaining base.

Puerto Rico Secretary of State Marisara Pont and Economic Development and Commerce Secretary Jorge Silva also were at this week's meetings. Puerto Rico would lose some $200 million in annual revenue if Buchanan is closed. For the time being, the base continues to play a critical role in recruiting and retention, an issue of importance to a military stretched thin with extended deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. The base has the 16th highest overall contribution to the Army National Guard and reserve and the sixth highest per capita contribution of all states and territories.

"It is the place for recruiting a majority of National Guardsmen and reservists who have been fighting in the Gulf," Bhatia said.

Buchanan is also the only active Army post in the Caribbean basin area, boasting the nation's only fully bilingual and bicultural force and playing a major role in the Caribbean and South America. The base supports a total population of 105,000, with at least 23 federal agencies and nearly 2,000 federal dependents attending Buchanan's consolidated school.