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PUERTO RICO REPORT
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
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
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