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White House Talks Set In Vieques Dispute On Base

by Elizabeth Becker

January 26, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON -- The White House has agreed to a request by the governor of Puerto Rico to step in and accelerate negotiations with the Navy about resuming weapons training on its base on the island of Vieques.

After the governor rejected the Navy's latest proposal to hold a referendum on the issue, the White House agreed to the request last night and invited Puerto Rico's top negotiator to resume negotiations on Thursday in Washington. But White House officials voiced support for the Navy's proposal to leave a final decision on the base's future to the citizens of Vieques rather than to Gov. Pedro J. Rosselló.

The Navy proposed last week that a referendum be held in 3 to 18 months offering the citizens of Vieques a choice of allowing the armed forces to resume training with live ammunition and receive $40 million in community aid in gratitude or closing the base within five years. There would be no testing on the island, where there is a moratorium on live-fire exercises through March 1, after the referendum, administration officials said.

"This proposal is worse than the last one," said Alfonso Aguilar, spokesman for the governor. "We've only got a few weeks left, and we know the Navy is pressuring the president for a decision before the moratorium ends in March."

The president suspended all military exercises on Vieques, a small island in the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, in April, when a civilian Puerto Rican guard was killed after Marine jets dropped bombs that unintentionally hit an observation tower. That death touched off protests that have led to the occupation of the base by more than 100 people.

In December the president halted live-fire military exercises there and ordered an end to all exercises in five years.

Governor Rosselló immediately rejected that as not a sufficient compromise, saying Puerto Rico wanted a ban on bombing exercises on Vieques that could be legally binding.

Last Friday the Navy made its counterproposal, a referendum, which has the backing of the president, a senior administration official said.

"We're suggesting the referendum is the way to go to give the Navy a chance to present its plan and see what the will of the people of Vieques really is," a senior White House official said. "The Puerto Ricans need to understand that the president as commander in chief must push forward the readiness of the armed forces while weighing the concerns of the people of Vieques."

Since World War II, the Navy and Marines have used the 900-acre range on Vieques for their only comprehensive live-fire exercises on the East Coast, involving amphibious landings, aerial bombardments and naval gunfire. While the Navy calls the range its "crown jewel" because these joint exercises are necessary to prepare the battle groups for deployment, the citizens of Vieques have called the base unacceptable.

Governor Rosselló has said the bombardment of Vieques over more than 50 years has led to high unemployment, high rates of cancer and severe damage to the island's wildlife and its fragile coral reef.

The Navy has admitted that it mishandled relations with the people of Vieques and has asked for another chance. But the citizens of Puerto Rico have put Vieques on the political agenda in the presidential campaign and in New York State, which has a large Puerto Rican population.

Vice President Al Gore sides with Puerto Rico in the debate, as does Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is running for the Senate from New York.

Republicans in Congress have backed the Navy and have scheduled hearings in the House and Senate on legislation that would the Roosevelt Roads naval station in Puerto Rico, a $3 billion entity, if the commonwealth refuses to allow the resumption of live-fire training.

Puerto Rico officials derided that proposal as scare tactics and have asked that the Navy be excluded from the talks on Thursday.

"We don't want to talk to the Navy anymore," Mr. Aguilar said.

On Thursday, Angel Morey, Puerto Rico's secretary of state, will meet with John D. Podesta, the White House chief of staff, and a Defense Department representative.


See also, Rossello Rejects Pentagon Offer On Vieques

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