She Said He Said: Part II

by John Marino

October 25, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOGov. Calderón ventured into nebulous waters last Friday when she called a late afternoon press conference to declare "victory" in the long drive to get the Navy to leave its prized training ground on Vieques.

Of course, such news would be grounds for an official announcement -- as well as celebration. The death of David Sanes Rodríguez on April 19, 1999 sparked pent-up resentment against the Navy in Vieques into a drive to stop the bombing practices that have gone on there for 60 years, and it was a struggle that a majority of Puerto Ricans have supported.

An end to bombing has been official commonwealth government public policy, first enacted by the former Rosselló administration shortly after the death of Sanes Rodríguez, and hundreds of Puerto Ricans have given up their freedom by taking part in the civil disobedience that has met bombing maneuvers since then.

The problem, however, was that Calderón presented few facts on which to hang her proclamation that she had received "official confirmation" that the Navy would definitively leave Vieques by next May.

"Today is a day of victory, of celebration and of unity for the people of Puerto Rico, especially the people of Vieques," the governor said. "This news is a resounding example of what Puerto Ricans can achieve when we work together."

What she would not say, however, is who gave her the confirmation and through what mea

After repeated questioning by the local press corps., who were becoming agitated about the limited disclosure, Calderón finally said that part of the confirmation had been written and another part verbal. She declined to release the communication or give more details about the verbal message because, she said, the federal officials involved asked her not to.

The most she would say is that the "official confirmation" had been given to her by the U.S. military with the knowledge of the White House.

Navy officials confirmed sending a written communication to Calderón but were emphatic that it was no guarantee that the Navy would make its deadline to leave Vieques by May 1, 2003.

''It is not a written guarantee that we are leaving by May of 2003,'' Navy spokesman Ensign David Luckett said. ''By no means is this the certification required by Congress prior to ceasing exercises.''

Under current law, the Navy must certify to Congress that it has found alternative training sites that are immediately available before abandoning Vieques. The letter, Luckett said, was meant to reassure the governor that the Navy was making progress on finding these alternatives and planned to end Vieques training by next May.

Navy officials also confirmed that an official -- most probably Navy Secretary Gordon England -- had also called Calderón to update her on the progress of those plans.

Perhaps, the governor was citing a verbal pledge by England that the Navy would indeed leave by next May, but why she decided to call a press conference announcing this "official confirmation" is not clear. After all, President Bush gave his verbal pledge to do this over a year ago, and in a brief meeting with Calderon he "looked her in the eye" and reiterated the pledge, the governor has previously said.

The Navy is giving clear signs that it is working to end training on Vieques by the May 2003 deadline. But despite these apparent good intentions, there is a real possibility that it might not make it.

A Center for Naval Analysis report on alternatives has been under review by the Pentagon for months and has yet to be released to the Congress or the public fueling speculation that the deadline may be missed.

Meanwhile, the San Juan STAR reported Thursday that a Pentagon source said that simulated computerized Navy ship gunnery practice was being contemplated to replace the ship-to-shore shelling that is currently conducted at Vieques.

The source added that the success of tests on the computerized system, due to take place next month, would be "key" to giving certification to Congress that the training alternatives requirement was met.

Hopefully, the tests will go off without a hitch, but given military snafus in systems testing, there could still be problems.

The Calderón administration finally released the letter late this Wednesday after it received reports that it had been leaked to members of the opposition New Progressive Party.

In the letter, England says that the Navy is working to comply with exiting Vieques by next May, but it was nothing more than his previous public statements on the issue.

One reason the Calderón administration may have held back on its release is a section in which England cites "security lapses" by Puerto Rico police which endangered Navy security personnel.

But the real problem is that she jumped on the letter to announce "official confirmation" of the Navy exit.

Some, such as the Rev. Wilfredo Estrada, a key figure in the Vieques protest movement, seemed to give the governor the benefit of the doubt by saying that the information she received was apparently strong enough that she decided to go public.

But others bristled that she was playing politics with the Vieques issue.

Calderón mentioned many people who helped in the "victory" of getting the Navy to leave Vieques.

But former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, who first managed to get the May 1, 2003 exit date through his deal with former President Bill Clinton, and Puerto Rican Independence Party President Rubén Berríos, who spent a year camped out on the bombing range, were not among them.?

Neither were the hundreds of Puerto Ricans who were arrested and served jail time for trespassing on the range.

Instead, the governor exalted the contribution made by New York Gov. George Pataki's calls for an end to Navy bombing. She said she would travel to New York to publicly back him and call on Puerto Rican and Latino voters there to do the same.

Some protest leaders wrote off the Calderón announcement as a "paid political message" for Pataki.

It's easy to try to score political points with the Vieques issue, but those who do usually end up getting burned.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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