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The Allentown Morning Call
The Best Approach On Vieques For Now
March 7, 2001
U. S. involvement with Vieques , Puerto Rico , dates to the eve of World War II when the United States bought two-thirds of the 21-mile- long island as a war-related emergency. But Puerto Rican acceptance of the U.S. military presence, with a Navy munitions depot on the western third of Vieques and a bombing range in the eastern third, ended with a tragic incident in April 1999: Two Navy jets on a practice bombing run killed a civilian Puerto Rican security guard when they dropped two 500-pound bombs on a military observation tower.
The Clinton administration made a major concession Jan. 31, 2000, which the residents of Vieques -- about 9,400 civilians sandwiched between the two military portions of the island -- subsequently feared the new administration would renege on. President Clinton and then Gov. Pedro J. Rossello of Puerto Rico agreed that the Navy could resume limited bombing practice with dummy weapons until a referendum is held this year. The referendum would let the residents of Vieques choose between letting the Navy resume full use of the range with live bombs and ammunition, or ordering the military to end all training by May 1, 2003.
But last week the Bush administration suspended all Navy bombing on Vieques while negotiators pursue a permanent solution to the bitter dispute. The decision was announced Thursday after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met with new Puerto Rican Gov. Sila Calderon, and it was the right thing to do. The new administration in Washington needs time to closely review the complicated situation in Vieques and a cooling-off period will be helpful in doing so.
Resolving the situation will be difficult. The Navy has prized Vieques because it is the only East Coast site where battle groups can use live ammunition during joint training exercises with amphibious landings of Marines, shelling from ships and aerial bombardment from fighter jets. The people of Vieques , however, feel strongly that even dummy bombs symbolize an improper intrusion on their island.
With such firmly entrenched positions on each side, a cooling-off period and a closer look by the new president and defense secretary is the best approach at this point.