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THE NEW YORK TIMES
CALDERON REPUDIATES VIEQUES DEAL
by ELIZABETH BECKER
January 14, 2001
WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 The new governor of Puerto Rico said today that she was repudiating the agreement reached last year to allow the Navy to resume firing training on the island of Vieques and would ask President Clinton to issue an executive order for the immediate cessation of all bombing on the island range before he leaves office.
Pointing to a new study showing a high incidence of heart problems among the fishermen and children of Vieques, Gov. Sila M. Calderón said this was "dramatic evidence" that 50 years of bombing exercises on Vieques had harmed the health and lives of its 9,000 residents. This preliminary study showed that Vieques residents have a high rate of symptoms of an unusual disorder known as vibroacoustic disease, which is associated with exposure to loud noises like those from jet engines or deep explosions.
"Before he leaves office we would like the president to stop the bombing as soon as possible," Governor Calderón said in a telephone interview. "We can renegotiate a new agreement, but after a more decent quality of life has been restored to the people of Vieques."
Saying she was "neither anti-Navy nor anti-United States," the governor said she wanted to begin immediate discussions with the administration of President-elect George W. Bush "based on dialogue and consensus."
"This is a human problem and I believe we are on the same side of the fence, that the United States and Puerto Rico are concerned about the welfare and human rights of the people of Vieques," she said.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Bush's transition team said he would have no comment until he took office.
All training on Vieques, a small island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, was suspended in April 1999 when a civilian Puerto Rican security guard was killed in a bombing accident, touching off widespread protests. Governor Calderón took part in a subsequent commission that found initial proof of health and environmental problems caused by repeated shelling from ships and aerial bombardments from fighter jets.
Ms. Calderón's predecessor, Pedro J. Rosselló, struck an agreement last year with the Clinton administration allowing the Navy to resume training using inert ammunition on the 900-acre range. It also called for a referendum for the people of Vieques to decide whether to close the site altogether. But the accord was unpopular and protesters staged sit-ins at the camp when the Navy resumed training this summer.
Ms. Calderón, the first woman to be governor of Puerto Rico, was elected in November on a platform that included a demand for the immediate cessation of the bombing.
That places her in direct conflict with the Navy. Last month Richard Danzig, the secretary of the Navy, told Ms. Calderón that he would not transfer land or initiate several community projects as promised in the accords until she publicly affirmed she would live by them. For the Navy, the range at Vieques is indispensable, the only training area in the Atlantic where the Navy can fire live ammunition in large joint amphibious, aerial and ship bombardment exercises. Those exercises, the Navy says, are essential to prepare for overseas deployments.
In a letter, Ms. Calderón told Mr. Danzig "this is not a time for threats."
A spokesman said today that the Navy remained committed to last year's accords.
"We believe we have a formula for working out the issue of Vieques and hopefully we can continue with that program," said Kenneth Bacon, the Pentagon spokesman.
That formula included $90 million in aid for Vieques if the residents voted to allow exercises with live ammunition in the referendum the Navy recently scheduled for Nov. 6.
"We thought by declaring an early date for the referendum we were offering Governor Calderón an olive branch, but it didn't work," a defense official said. "Now everything is on hold."
On Monday, Governor Calderón will release the findings of the study that presents preliminary evidence that the Navy training exercises may be causing vibroacoustic disease, a recently identified syndrome that can be detected by a thickening of the membrane that encloses the heart.
In the study, 49 of 50 Vieques residents examined had this symptom at a level rarely seen in a general population. A control study of 50 residents from Ponce, on the main island of Puerto Rico, showed no evidence of the ailment, which is associated with a number of heart, lung and other problems. In addition, the study found, several Vieques children showed an unusual number of heart abnormalities, possibly from jumping into the water during bombing exercises to experience what they called a Jacuzzi effect, to feel vibrations carried through the water.