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Vieques Deal Is Again Turned On Its Head

by Robert Becker

AUGUST 3, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

On the day that the people of Vieques voted to evict the U.S. Navy, it snowed in Puerto Rico.

A huge cloud of white ash discharged from an active volcano on the island of Monserrate and was carried westward by a strong tropical wave that had rolled across the Atlantic from the shores of West Africa. When the weather system reached Vieques and the larger island of Puerto Rico, heavy rains fell, and with it, a fine white carpet of volcanic dust that covered every car, rooftop, and stationary surface on the islands.

"My driveway looked like it was covered with snow," observed one astonished San Juan resident.

Both nature and politics play to extremes in Puerto Rico. In the case of the July 29 referendum on the Navy, 68 percent of the Vieques voters selected referendum Option 2, which demanded that the Navy leave Vieques immediately, that it turn over all of its lands to the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and that it clean up the after-effects of 60 years of bombing and shelling before turning off the lights.

The other two options bore some semblance to reality. Option 1 would have allowed the Navy to stay until 2003, using dummy ammunition. Option 3 would have allowed the Navy to stay permanently, with the option of using live ordinance.

The expectations raised by Option 2 were remarkably unrealistic, given that the Navy of the world’s sole superpower needs more than a few days to find and develop an alternative training site to the Vieques-Roosevelt Roads complex, which incorporates combined training of aircraft carrier battle groups, high-altitude precision bombing, ship-to-shore gunnery and amphibious troop assaults. The Navy has proudly referred to the Vieques complex as the crown jewel of its Atlantic fleet training facilities.

The Vieques vote was not the first time that the voters of Puerto Rico approved a referendum option at odds with political and legal realities. In a December, 1998, status referendum ordered by former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, voters had five options, four of which had been carefully defined in status legislation drawn up previously in the U.S. Congress. They were the current unincorporated territorial status, statehood, full independence, and independence in association with the United States. A 5th, None of the Above, was inserted at the insistence of Popular Democratic Party leaders who didn’t like commonwealth being accurately defined as an unincorporated territory of the United States.

The winner? None of the Above.

Flush with their Vieques referendum victory last Sunday, the anti-Navy movement demanded that President Bush order the Navy’s immediate departure. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer responded that the Navy would continue training on Vieques until 2003, by which time it would have to come up with an alternative site.

The Navy also announced that the referendum vote would not alter its plans to begin training on Vieques this week. Protesters responded Thursday with a new round of civil disobedience.

With questions about Bush’s resolve to stick to the timetable answered, the lingering issue was what would happen to the scheduled Nov. 6 referendum, which Navy brass and congressional diehards believed they could win. Bush’s order in June for the Navy to leave by 2003 seemed to have made the November referendum moot.

In an Aug. 1 hearing, the House Armed Services Committee, a stronghold of Navy support, produced a surprise. The committee amended a military appropriations bill so that the November referendum was canceled, as the Defense Department, under pressure from the White House, had "requested." But Chairman Bob Stump, R-Ariz., had a few tricks up his sleeve. His chairman’s mark also removed the May, 2003 departure date for the Navy. The bill also requires the Navy to stay on Vieques until an equivalent training site is found, with the interesting proviso that it had to be a site where bombing, shelling and amphibious landings can be done together.

The bill also keeps the Navy land on the eastern half of the island in the hands of the Navy and U.S. Interior Department for reactivation in the case of a national emergency.

The new provisions reflect Congressional unhappiness with Puerto Rico’s unyielding stance on Vieques. If the measure survives intact in a vote on the House floor in September, it faces tough going in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where there is more sympathy for Puerto Rico’s position. But if the House measure were to prevail, it would show as folly the Calderón administration’s rejection of the better deal contained in her predecessor’s agreement with Bill Clinton.

Robert Becker, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at:

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