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The Florida Times-Union

Defense Training Is Vital

February 28, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Florida Times-Union. All Rights Reserved.

One of the foreign policy blunders of the past eight years that President Bush will have to try to rectify is the matter of Vieques , the Puerto Rican island that has been an important Navy training site for 60 years.

His predecessor, on a busy last day in office, directed the secretary of Defense to develop alternatives to training on Vieques .

The previous administration's error was to allow -- even to exacerbate -- the incorporation of the national defense issue into local politics in Puerto Rico .

The Navy has owned two-thirds of the island since 1941. It uses one end for live-fire weapons training. A strip in the center of the island is privately owned and occupied by about 9,000 civilians. The live-fire area is 8 miles from the nearest town and occupies less than 3 percent of the Navy's land.

In April 1999, an accident resulted in the death of a civilian guard on the Navy property. It was the only fatality in the history of the training facility.

But activists, who either want independence for Puerto Rico or the Navy's expulsion for other reasons, use the incident to stir up a fuss.

A former chief of naval operations called Vieques "the crown jewel of live fire, combined arms training" and the "world standard."

Among the reasons it is considered ideal by the Navy is that it is outside the commercial air lanes, has deep water, has ideal terrain for Marine amphibious operations and is near Roosevelt Roads Naval Air Station, which can supply radar control and refueling for ships and planes engaged in training exercises.

As of yet, the Navy has not found a suitable replacement.

An earlier order by the previous president has bound the site's future to a referendum that will be held in Puerto Rico in November. It is a win-win vote for the Puerto Rico people. The alternatives are that the Navy will stay and pay them $50 million -- on top of $40 million it has offered to pay -- or the Navy will leave and Puerto Rico will get the Navy land, which probably is worth $100 million.

The current governor made a campaign promise not to cooperate with the Navy and, in fact, promised to make it more difficult for the Navy.

Bush can get relations between the United States and Puerto Rico back on track and ensure continued training at Vieques . But, it will be an uphill task.

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