U.S. naval surveillance base in D.R. could bolster P.R. drug fight
The deal for the base, meanwhile, is sparking protests from some quarters in the neighboring Caribbean nation as the Dominican government asserts that the $1.5 million installation won't constitute a violation of national sovereignty.
According to a recent report by Dominican Today, the U.S. Southern Command is planning to build a naval base and pier in Catuano, on Saona Island, which is located a short distance from the mainland off the southeastern tip of the Dominican Republic.
Catuano is situated on the northwestern end of the island, which is a government-protected nature reserve and part of the country’s East National Park.
The base’s purpose will be to strengthen maritime surveillance off the east coast of the Dominican Republic, including the 100-mile-wide Mona Passage, whose eastern boundary is formed by the west coast of Puerto Rico. The passage is part of a vital maritime shipping route that connects the Caribbean Sea—and the Panama Canal to the west—with the open Atlantic.
The Caribbean Journal reported that Dominican Navy Chief of Staff Nicolás Cabrera, who announced the agreement, said the base would be constructed to help interdict criminal maritime activity to Puerto Rico, along with drug trafficking and smuggling.
During the ceremony in which the agreement was announced, U.S. Embassy Public Affairs adviser Todd Haskell, on behalf of ambassador Raúl Yzaguirre, highlighted “the importance of building a naval base and a pier in such a vulnerable area of the Dominican Republic.”
The announcement touched off a squall of activity on Twitter, according to the Caribbean Journal report, with some claiming the new naval installation would amount to a violation of Dominican national sovereignty.
The U.S. government said, however, that Dominican naval personnel, and not U.S. marines, would be posted at the base.
Aside from the sovereignty issue, some academic, scientific and conservation groups in the Dominican Republic oppose the base on ecological grounds. They argue the Catuano Strait is one of the country’s most fragile and diverse marine environments and is designated a Southeast Reef Marine Sanctuary.
“We consider this an unacceptable intrusion against nature in the East National Park, an area emblematic of the Dominican Republic’s National System of Protected Areas, which contains an extraordinary biological richness and numerous marine and terrestrial species that are threatened or endangered,” noted the Academy of Sciences of the Dominican Republic, the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo and the Dominican Foundation for Marine Research in a statement reported by Inter News Service.
Cabrera, meanwhile, said the construction work will be coordinated by the Military Assistance Advisory Group in the Dominican Republic, and will be carried out by the U.S. Southern Command.
The U.S. Navy said the funds for construction, set to begin in March, would come from the U.S. Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, launched by President Barack Obama in 2009.
The deal for the new installation comes as the Navy’s former base of operations in the region, the naval station at Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico’s eastern municipality of Ceiba, passes once and for all into civilian hands.
On Feb. 13, the Navy launched an online auction for more than 2,000 acres of land overlooking the ocean at the base, which closed in 2004, shortly after the Navy stopped using nearby Vieques as a bombing range.
The auction was expected to take at least three days. The minimum bid was $10 million for one parcel of nearly 500 acres. The minimum is $30 million for another parcel of more than 1,500 acres.
The two areas, which make up what was the residential area of the base, are zoned for residential and commercial development.
The closure of Roosevelt Roads was a big blow to the economy of Ceiba and surrounding towns, pulling down real-estate values, stripping jobs and leaving local businesses struggling to survive.
Puerto Rico’s government has acquired surrounding land and has big development plans that include a cruiseship port and casino.
Another 3,340 acres have been set aside for conservation under management by the Conservation Trust.