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THE WASHINGTON POST
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
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
"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
"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
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."