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The Next Phase of Vieques Conflict

by Lance Oliver

October 22, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Now that the Special Panel on Military Operations on Vieques has issued its recommendations, the battle between Puerto Rico and the U.S. Navy moves into a new phase. Most likely, it will be a phase filled with more conflict that we have seen so far.

The panel's report included a rebuke of the Navy for failing to fulfill its obligations in the 1983 Memorandum of Understanding, but its recommendations were a compromise. Between the Navy's position that Vieques was irreplaceable and leaving would compromise national security, and Puerto Rico's position that bombing should stop immediately and permanently and the Navy should pack its bags as fast as possible, the panel chose a middle course that was more favorable to Puerto Rico than to the Navy.

Of course nobody was pleased. For that reason, and others, the fight will go on and it will probably get nastier.

As long as the panel was working on its report, there was a reason for both sides to figuratively lower their weapons and hold their positions. The protesters camped out in restricted Navy areas on Vieques could sit and wait to see what the panel would do. The Navy, which had stopped bombing practice anyway, could leave them there, hoping they might get tired and sunburned and go home.

There was no need for the Navy to remove the protesters by force because their presence was not curtailing any training.

That has changed, now. Some elements within the Navy have been itching to kick out the rabble rousers from day one. It offends the military sense of order to have scruffy protesters camping out in restricted areas. Now, cooler heads will have less leverage for holding back those who want to send in the troops to evict the squatters. A clash on Vieques is now more likely.

At the same time, the "no compromise" position of the Puerto Rico government, the governor's panel on Vieques and the community organizations of Vieques also makes it more likely conflict will spread. If the protesters on Navy land are ousted, many in Puerto Rico are ready to take the protest elsewhere, even though some politicians are uncomfortable with civil disobedience actions outside of Vieques. If bombing resumes, protests will certainly follow.

Already, one recent protest at the entrance to the Fort Buchanan base in San Juan allegedly led to a military policeman pulling a gun on demonstrators.

The question now is what will President Clinton do? Puerto Ricans hoping that the president will forcefully come down on their side, stopping the bombing immediately and ordering the Navy to vacate Vieques sooner than the panel's five-year time frame, should remember that Bill Clinton is a master of compromise, not an unwavering adherent to principle.

From the beginning of his administration, when the gays in the military issue was pressed on a new administration that wasn't prepared to deal with it, Clinton has sought to find a middle ground that pleases everyone a little and doesn't leave anyone angry enough to nurse a grudge. It doesn't always work, as "don't ask, don't tell" shows, but it has worked often enough in his career for Clinton to be elected governor and later president at a young age.

The "no compromise" position has its risks, tactically. It runs the risk of appearing inflexible and unreasonable. Clinton, ever mindful of appearances and having recently taken fire for his pardon of the pro-independence Puerto Rican prisoners, is very capable of giving Puerto Rico less than he might have otherwise just to show he is not being pushed around by Puerto Ricans making "unreasonable demands."
Clinton has more reason to try to prove he is not an enemy of the military than to prove he is a friend of Puerto Rico. With an eye on his legacy, he doesn't want to be remembered as the former draft dodger who gutted military preparedness.

Then there's the question of Congressional involvement. Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barceló raised the possibility of legislative action to avoid reliance on an executive order which could be reversed by a new president in January 2001.

But Congress is less likely to be sympathetic to Puerto Rico's position than is the president, and more likely to see the "no compromise" position as unreasonable and therefore something to be punished, not rewarded. Congress has a consistent pattern of ignoring Puerto Rico's wishes in recent years, ranging from Section 936 tax breaks to the release of Puerto Rican prisoners.

Getting any improvement over the panel's recommendations will be a difficult task. And there will no doubt be more conflict before there is any peace and quiet in Vieques.


Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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