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Navy Bombing Range Deal Reached: Puerto Rico Negotiates Aid And A Vote On Vieques' Future

by Roberto Suro

February 1, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE WASHINGTON POST CO. All Rights Reserved.

With an offer of $90 million in aid--nearly $10,000 for each of the 9,300 people who live on the tiny island of Vieques --the Clinton administration yesterday persuaded Puerto Rico to let the Navy resume training on its Caribbean bombing range, at least temporarily.

The deal resolves a dispute that has disrupted training for the Atlantic fleet since April, when a wayward bomb killed a civilian security guard and protesters occupied the lush hillsides and beaches where the Navy and Marines have practiced invasions for nearly 60 years.

In the works since last December, the agreement was sealed after five days of negotiations that produced concessions by both the administration and Puerto Rican officials. President Clinton more than doubled the federal government's financial offer to Vieques residents, while Gov. Pedro Rossello of Puerto Rico backed away from his pledge that "not one more bomb" would ever fall on the 52-square-mile island.

In exchange for $40 million up front, Puerto Rican officials agreed to let the Navy conduct exercises this spring with "dummy" bombs containing no explosives. But at a date still to be determined--sometime between this August and February 2002--the people of Vieques will vote in a referendum on whether to permit the Navy to resume using live ammunition. If the voters say yes, the people of Vieques will get an additional $50 million in aid, for a total of $90 million. If they vote "no," the Navy must clean up its practice range and halt all training by May 1, 2003.

"It is with immense pleasure that after six decades of military exercises on the Isla Nena, we have arrived at a solution to ensure peace for Vieques ," Rossello said in an address to the Puerto Rican people yesterday evening, using the Spanish term for "baby island," a fond nickname for Vieques .

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said negotiators had worked "in good faith to reconcile the vital need for training with the legitimate concerns of the people of Vieques ."

Some of the protesters who have set up camps on the firing range, however, immediately rejected the deal and warned that federal authorities would have to remove them by force. Administration officials said they have not decided yet how to deal with the protesters.

"We need to see how much Puerto Rican popular opinion rallies around this accord. But regardless, some people are going to want to be arrested to make a symbolic point, and we're ready for that," said a senior administration official.

The Navy has pounded Vieques since the early days of World War II, and top officials insist there is nowhere else that the Atlantic fleet can conduct exercises with aircraft dropping bombs, ships firing shells and Marines storming a beach all at once. (The Pacific fleet conducts its live-fire training on an uninhabited island off the California coast.)

For more than 20 years, Puerto Rican political leaders have struggled against the bombing with lawsuits and legislative action. The Navy now admits to neglecting its relations with Puerto Rico and failing to deliver on past promises of economic aid.

After the April accident, the Navy's use of Vieques became the focal point for even broader resentment over Puerto Rico 's relationship with the United States. Local politicians found themselves obliged to oppose the Navy, regardless of whether they favored Puerto Rico 's independence, statehood, or current status as a commonwealth in which residents are U.S. citizens but have limited political representation.

"This is the Navy's plan to keep using Vieques for bombing, which the people of Vieques don't want," said Roberto Rabin, a member of the Vieques Coordinating Committee for Peace and Justice, an umbrella organization of protesters and community groups. "I don't think people are going to stop protesting over the Navy plan."

Protest leaders insisted that even the use of non-explosive or inert ordnance was unacceptable, and they vowed to block the first stage of the plan in which the Navy would resume exercises only with dummy bombs.

In the past, the administration has been reluctant to provoke a clash with the protesters, and senior officials said yesterday that they were prepared to wait weeks and months if necessary to let a consensus build in favor of the deal. With a battle group led by the carrier USS George Washington due to train at Vieques in March and April, that may mean forgoing exercises considered essential by top Navy and Marine officers.

"I think it is useful for the people of Puerto Rico in general and of Vieques in particular to have some time to talk among themselves and to evolve their position in respect to this," said Richard Danzig, secretary of the Navy. "It is not the Navy's intent to force the issue by making a judgment about the George Washington in the next few weeks."

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