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Vieques Will Be No Paradise Island For Bush

by Miguel Pérez

February 6, 2001
Copyright © 2001 All Rights Reserved.

Not even Hillary Clinton could persuade her husband, when he was still the president, to stop the U.S. Navy from bombing the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

She tried, at least she said she would, but nevertheless President Clinton left the White House without putting an end to the five-decade bombardment of that civilian-inhabited island.

During his last days in office, as Clinton frantically gave out pardons and issued executive orders, he was lobbied by many Puerto Rican leaders of every party affiliation to do the right thing for the 9,400 people who live on Vieques.

The new Puerto Rico governor, Sila Calderón, who took office two weeks before Clinton left the White House, had mounted an impressive last-minute campaign to pressure him to halt the bombings. Many others wrote to him, pleading for mercy for innocent people at a time when he was pardoning criminals.

For a while, their efforts looked promising. Calderón presented a new local study that found that Vieques residents had a high rate of heart abnormalities, which could have been caused by noise from the Navy bombings.

The Clinton administration immediately ordered a federal study on the potential health hazards on Vieques. And the new Senator Clinton wrote Calderón a letter, noting that she would ask her husband ''to order a cessation of all bombing and shelling'' until the Department of Health submits a report.

Many Puerto Ricans were optimistic that perhaps Vieques had seen its last bombing raid, especially since the election of Calderón had served as a clear referendum against the Navy staying in Vieques. She ran on a platform that called for the immediate cessation of the bombing.

But no way, José. The former president didn't budge -- not even for Hillary -- from the agreement he had reached with former Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rosselló. Under that deal, the Navy will not leave Vieques until May 2003, and then, only if Vieques residents vote to boot it out in a referendum set for Nov 6, 2001.

Tucked between a Navy training ground and a weapons depot, many Vieques residents have long resented their living conditions. But it reached a climax in April 1999, when a Navy jet dropped a stray bomb and killed a civilian security guard at the base.

Military exercises were suspended as months of protests followed. When the protesters were forcibly removed from the bombing range and the exercises were resumed, the Navy stopped using live bombs. However, if Vieques voters allow the Navy to stay, it will be with the understanding that live bombs will again be used.

Nevertheless, some Puerto Ricans fear that between now and November, with promises of rebuilding the island, the Navy can woo enough Vieques voters.

Calderón has threatened to offer another referendum that includes the option of making the Navy leave immediately. The threat was apparently taken seriously by Clinton, who just one day before leaving office instructed the Pentagon to seek alternatives to training exercises on the island.

He didn't do it to help the people of Vieques. He did it in case Calderón follows through with her threat and Puerto Rico voters decide the Navy should leave before 2003.

''A new governor, legislative majority and mayor have recently taken office on a platform of obtaining an immediate end to training,'' Clinton noted. ''They have also pledged to take actions that would be inconsistent with the resolution of these issues previously reached.''

Although he will not be there to receive it, Clinton asked Pentagon officials to report to the White House by May 9 on how military training exercises could be accomplished through May 2003 without using Vieques.

Calderón called it ``a step in the right direction'' but not enough. Other Puerto Rican leaders were less diplomatic, saying that Clinton ``lacked the courage to tell the Pentagon to pull out of Vieques.' It's true, but it's water under the bridge.

The question now is how President George W. Bush, who has said he would abide by the Clinton-Rosselló accord, is going to react to the call for an immediate cease-fire.

Told that Calderón had repudiated and practically abridged the Clinton-Rosselló agreement, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer responded, ''The president is very well aware of the sensitivities on that issue in Puerto Rico, and I think he's going to want to talk with officials of the Dó (Defense Department) about that before proceeding.''

Ironically, Senator Hillary Clinton said she would also ask the Bush administration to halt the bombings immediately. Fat chance.

If Clinton didn't do it, don't expect it from Bush. He may get out of Vieques in 2003, if the island's voters say so, but he'll do so as grudgingly as the Navy has been about leaving its favorite place for playing war games.

Miguel Pérez is a columnist with The Record in Bergen, N.J. He may be reached by e-mail at

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