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Vieques: The Unfinished Business

August 2, 2001
Copyright © 2001 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Last week, the Calderon administration delivered on its promise to hold a referendum in Vieques on the issue of continued U.S. Navy training there. Now we can only hope that cool heads prevail as the administration pursues its Washington agenda, including Vieques.

The results of the vote were predictable. Of the three options presented, 68% of those who voted supported immediate cessation of all Navy training and prompt exit and cleanup, 30% voted for indefinite presence and unlimited training and only 1.7% backed the status quo, i.e., limited training until May 2003.

The vote itself may have been an exercise in futility, but its negative repercussions could be considerable depending on subsequent developments here on out.

Everyone agreed even before the vote that the referendum was not binding on any party. Questions on its effect on the federally mandated November referendum–which would not include an immediate withdrawal option–are still up in the air. The Calderon administration argued that the referendum would still be significant because it would give Vieques residents the opportunity to express how they feel about a range of options including an immediate stop to all training.

Well, they have. But the question has never been just how the people of Vieques feel about the issue. That we knew. The more complex question is what are we prepared to do about it. By that we mean, given the wish of the majority of the people of Vieques to put a stop to Navy training there, how is the government of Puerto Rico together with the federal government to address that aspiration while taking into account all the other considerations involved in this very complex issue, not the least important of which is an adequate level of training that ensures combat readiness of our Navy and Marine Corps.

That is what the presidential directive following the agreement between former president Clinton and former governor Rossello and the subsequent congressional legislation implementing it hoped to do. That is, give the residents of Vieques the opportunity to vote the Navy out of the small island, but do it in a way that allows the Navy until May 2003–less than two years away–to look for an alternative and prepare it for its military training needs while ensuring military preparedness in the meantime.

The Bush administration has decided to live with the timetable. The President announced that the decision has been made for the Navy to leave by May 2003, thus foregoing the admittedly outside chance for the Navy to prevail in a referendum later this year. For those who wish the Navy’s exit from Vieques, that’s a very significant improvement over the Clinton directive.

But, at the same time, the Bush administration has stated unequivocally that the Navy needs to be able to train in Vieques while a suitable replacement is found, no later than May 2003, already a tight and challenging timetable. Last week, the top two Navy officials, Secretary of the Navy Gordon England and Chief of Naval Operations Vernon Clark said so, just to the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, but to the Defense subcommittee of the very important Appropriations Committee.

We suggest that all parties concerned take note of the thinking of this very important committee in Congress that can affect our overall federal funding. They are asking for the local government’s cooperation until 2003. Now that the local referendum on Vieques is over, we should walk carefully until then and avoid any ‘my way or no way’ attitude. There is much more at stake here than Vieques.

Gov. Sila Calderon is given to refer to the U.S. as "Puerto Rico’s partner and ally." Whether or not one agrees with that characterization, at the very least, some thought ought to be given to how "partners and allies" treat each other and how they try to accommodate each other’s sometime conflicting priorities and objectives.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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