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Vieques Phase-Out Fair

February 2, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

President Clinton's decision about the Navy base on the Puerto Rican island gives something to both sides. It's time to leave the tensions behind.

Critics who excoriate President Bill Clinton's balanced Vieques decision protest too much.

This week, Mr. Clinton ordered a controversial U.S. Navy base on the Puerto Rican island to close by 2003; restricted its activities during the interim; prohibited the use of live ammunition; and committed $40 million in economic-development assistance to the island.

In other words, critics of the base -- where a civilian guard died during a tragic bombing-practice accident early last year -- have obtained far more than they originally set out to accomplish.

Apparently, though, it's not enough.

Realizing that the federal government was prepared to compromise, critics began increasing their demands. Even Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello -- who generally has provided a sensible voice in the debate -- partly joined the chorus.

It appeared that nothing short of an immediate U.S. military withdrawal from Vieques would satisfy the loudest critics.

However, that result would run counter to U.S. national-security interests. In a nutshell, Vieques provides a vital training environment with certain unique qualities. It boasts year-round, good weather and allows air, ground and naval forces to practice simultaneously.

Sure, the Navy could re-create the Vieques training site elsewhere. But that would amount to a long-term, complicated effort, hence the wisdom in phasing out the base.

In the meantime, under Mr. Clinton's guidelines, the base will continue to serve key U.S. training needs -- minus the live-ammunition tests that have caused so much understandable worry among Vieques residents.

By embracing Mr. Clinton's decision, Mr. Rossello has distanced himself from the more extreme perspectives. As if on cue, the critics have accused Mr. Rossello of selling out.

That couldn't be further from the truth. The governor used a common negotiating strategy -- aiming for more than one hopes to accomplish. He clearly achieved that goal, even though the final decision fell short of what certain critics wanted.

And Mr. Rossello recognized it was time to compromise, as negotiators eventually must do.

The Vieques decision amounts to a victory -- for Mr. Rossello, for Vieques residents, for all Puerto Ricans. They have made themselves heard on this matter, participating vigorously in the democratic system that governs this country.

Now it's time to acknowledge that Mr. Clinton's plan gives something to both sides, to leave the worst tensions behind.

That doesn't mean the issue will go away. Critics aren't likely to let up.

Also, Puerto Ricans will have another opportunity to make their views known on Vieques. Part of Mr. Clinton's decision involved giving the Navy a chance to persuade Puerto Ricans to let the base stay active indefinitely through a referendum. The likelihood of a vote in the Navy's favor appears slim, given the strong opposition to a continuing Navy role on the island.

In any case, it's up to Puerto Ricans to decide.

Vieques has come to symbolize a range of complex issues in U.S.-Puerto Rico relations. Those include U.S. political and military influence over Puerto Rico, American national security, civilian safety and Puerto Rican self-determination.

Mr. Clinton's decision hasn't resolved those matters, but it helps point the federal government and Puerto Rico toward broadening their discussions.

That's essential.

Despite their differences, Americans -- whether they live in Puerto Rico or Orlando or somewhere else -- have much in common. They are neighbors.

Together, guided by a sense of compromise and shared values, they stand a better chance of resolving their problems.

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