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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The Value of Vieques
November 15, 1999
Copyright © 1999 DOW JONES & COMPANY, INC. All Rights
What do you do if you're President and are looking for a gift
for the girl who has everything except a Senate seat?
Last summer it was clemency for 16 Puerto Rican terrorists.
Next may be the Navy's live-fire range on the Puerto Rican island
of Vieques. Just as Mr. Clinton made his clemency offer against
the recommendations of the Justice Department, the FBI and the
U.S. Attorney offices that had prosecuted the terrorists, he is
now considering shutting down Vieques against the unusually loud
and clear advice of the U.S. military.
Even without the complication of the New York Senate race,
the Vieques problem doesn't lend itself to an easy resolution.
On one hand there is the paramount issue of national security:
The nation's troops must be trained to the highest level. If not
on Vieques, where? The Navy says there is no other option. On
the other hand, there are the long-held wishes of the citizens
of Puerto Rico, who have been trying to negotiate the Navy's departure
from Vieques for decades and who thought they had an agreement
in the early 1980s that the Navy would search for an alternative
site. The matter exploded in April after the accidental death
of a civilian security guard on Vieques.
Vice Admiral William Fallon, commander of the Second Fleet,
which covers the Atlantic, speaks for the Navy when he calls Vieques
"critical to readiness." It is the only location on
the East Coast where the Navy and Marine Corps can practice combined
air, sea and land operations using live ammunition, essential
exercises for combat troops. "People have to have the confidence
to be able to do their jobs under stress," he says -- and
no computer game can simulate the stress of live ammunition. About
50,000 troops train on Vieques every year. Virtually all naval
and Marine troops leaving the East Coast to enter combat, such
as the Gulf war or Kosovo, have to train at Vieques.
The military presence there dates back to 1941, when FDR authorized
the use of Vieques and the nearby island of Culebra. Since then,
an explosion in the population along with the growth in air and
sea commerce have closed down or sharply curtailed other live-fire
training options on the Eastern Seaboard (there are plenty in
the wide-open West). Operations on Culebra shut down in the late
The bomb-and-depart nature of the training that occurs on Vieques
means that, unlike most places where the military goes, there
are few jobs for the 9,300 locals and next-to-no benefits for
the local economy. A Navy report on economic development lists
a litany of failures: cattle, crabs, shrimp, circuit boards, aloe
vera, bees, to name a few industries that have gone kaput. A small
number of tourists are attracted by the island's beautiful beaches
-- and the Navy permits a cruise liner to make calls -- but the
bombs are a deterrent to the emergence of a hospitality industry.
In Puerto Rico, there is rare political unanimity on Vieques
and a shared sense that Washington has done them wrong. But it
would be a mistake to interpret the anti-Vieques sentiment as
anti-American or anti-military, even though those who are anti-American
and anti-military have taken up the cause in the loudest voices.
The tiny left-wing Independence Party has put itself at the front
of the pack, with leader Ruben Berrios Martinez installing himself
as a one-man tourist attraction on the island, visited by such
sightseers as Jesse Jackson.
For many Puerto Ricans, moreover, the Navy's continued presence
on Vieques has become a symbol of the commonwealth's lack of political
influence in Washington. Statehooders point to the island of Kahoolawe,
off the coast of Maui, which was expropriated for military use
in the same year as Vieques. In 1990, the Senators from Hawaii,
by then a state, got the military to stop using it as a bombing
A Presidential commission on Vieques, set up in the wake of
the death of the security guard, has issued a recommendation that
just might work: The Navy can stay, but only for five more years.
So far, however, the responses aren't encouraging, and without
the kind of political leadership that this Administration is sorely
short of, there's no chance that the commission's proposal will
be implemented. Puerto Rico says no more bombing, period, and
the Navy says it can't find an alternate site within five years.
Mrs. Clinton chimes in that the Navy should leave immediately.
As for the commander-in-chief, Mr. Clinton must decide shortly
whether to go through with the U.S.S. Eisenhower's planned training
exercises on December 1. If the exercises are canceled, Admiral
Fallon warns that he might not be able to certify the Eisenhower
group as combat ready. That comes on the heels of an Army announcement
that two of its divisions are not combat ready, receiving the
lowest of four possible grades -- and that no division received
the highest readiness rating. Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma
Republican who heads the readiness subcommittee, says you have
to go back to the 1970s for a comparable crisis in military preparedness.
In an interview with Telemundo Television early this month,
Mr. Clinton took the opportunity to badmouth the military's treatment
of Vieques, saying that he would "work hard" to get
a compromise through, but not committing himself to the Eisenhower's
exercises. After the raw exercise in politicking on display in
the FALN clemency grants, it's hard to have any confidence that
when he does get around to resolving the Vieques matter, this
President will put the national interest first.