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ASSOCIATED PRESS NEWSWIRES
Puerto Rico Rejects President's Plan For Navy Use
by Chris Hawley
December 4, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.
VIEQUES , Puerto Rico (AP) - Hopes for a deal ending the crisis
over the U.S. Navy's use of the island of Vieques collapsed when
Puerto Rican leaders, in a show of rare unity, rejected a compromise
offered by President Clinton.
Clinton's long-awaited decision Friday appeared to constitute
a significant concession to Puerto Rico 's demands. Clinton agreed
to immediately end live bombings - which had been the root of
the crisis - and phase out all operations on the outlying, populated
island within five years.
But Clinton insisted that some training - and the use of at
least inert bombs - was essential and would resume next spring.
"I understand the long-standing concerns of residents
of the island," Clinton said in the statement. But he added:
"I cannot send our servicemen and women into harm's way if
they have not been adequately trained."
Emphasizing the importance of the island to military readiness,
the Clinton administration dangled a $40 million incentive to
try to persuade Vieques ' 9,000 residents, who are U.S. citizens,
to let the training continue.
A somber group of Puerto Rican leaders headed by Gov. Pedro
Rossello - a staunch Clinton ally and supporter of U.S. statehood
for the Spanish-speaking territory - gathered in San Juan to reject
the compromise package. Puerto Rican leaders have demanded a cessation
of all training and the immediate departure of the Navy from Vieques
Rossello went so far as to suggest that Clinton had led him
astray - causing his office to issue a series of unduly optimistic
assessments earlier in the day.
"Personally I feel deceived with the position that's been
taken because it doesn't faithfully reflect what we have been
discussing with the president," Rossello said.
The Navy operations have been a target of occasional protests
and legal actions since the 1960s, but the controversy erupted
into a crisis after a civilian security guard was killed by stray
bombs on the range last April.
The Navy then suspended training on Vieques but has sought
a way to resume it. Navy Secretary Richard Danzig reiterated Friday
that the island, a key training ground for the ships and aircraft
of the Navy's Atlantic Fleet since World War II, offers "the
most rigorous, realistic training" facility available.
It was not clear what would happen now to the several dozen
protesters - most of them independence activists - who have for
seven months occupied the Navy range.
Because Clinton delayed the resumption of the exercises for
months - and sent the USS Eisenhower battle group, which had been
headed here, to train off the U.S. mainland instead - all sides
appeared to have bought some time.
Ruben Berrios, the independence party leader and front-man
for the Vieques protesters, called Clinton's offer a considerable
- if insufficient - step forward and called on all island leaders
to join him at his beach camp to press for their full demands.
"If we maintain the original consensus and civil disobedience
we can defeat the Navy," he told the AP.
Rossello also won support Friday from an array of island leaders
who assembled at his mansion, including opposition leader and
San Juan Mayor Sila Calderon, who opposes statehood for Puerto
Rico and is running for governor in 2000.
"This unity, outside party lines, (gives us) the power
for achieving what we want to achieve," Calderon said.
"We will see better times," said a somber San Juan
Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves, the island's leading religious
figure. "With love we will achieve this noble goal."
Polls have suggested most Puerto Ricans back the hard line
on Vieques .
However, in recent days some people here have raised concerns
about the damage that the apparent inflexibility could cause to
Puerto Rico 's relationship with the United States - provider
of citizenship, passports, and billions of dollars a year in federal
These issues were of little concern at the protest camps in
Organizers handed out new flares, whistles, cellular phones
and high-powered spotlights to volunteers standing guard in one-hour
shifts - prepared, as has been the case all week, for possible
"The real triumph will come when we get the full return
of the land, the cleanup of the pollution, and the compensation
of this people that has suffered so much," said Ismael Guadelupe,
a protest leader on the bombing range.