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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Referendum On Vieques Called Unfair
by Ivan Roman
February 14, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Men in black face paint climbed 150
feet of scaffolding at the municipal dump Thursday, jamming morning
rush-hour traffic as drivers gawked at the huge sign stating "Vieques
is Not for Sale."
The protesters had heard news that morning, which they thought
proved their point: President Clinton's controversial decision
on the U.S. Navy's training and presence in Vieques stinks.
For them, confirmation came from Secretary of Defense William
Cohen. In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Cohen said
the referendum among the people of Vieques to determine whether
the Navy stays after three years was structured to tip the scales
toward the Pentagon.
Critics have blasted Gov. Pedro Rossello for accepting Clinton's
decision to have the Navy stay for three more years and use inert
bombs in training exercises. In the interim, Vieques residents
will decide in a referendum whether the Navy should leave altogether.
Vieques gets $40 million in aid and the western half of the
island that the Navy now owns by the end of the year. If people
vote for it to stay, they get another $50 million in economic
development aid. If the Navy leaves, the other 10 miles of land
on the eastern half of the island would eventually revert to Puerto
Critics are particularly concerned -- some are indignant --
over the referendum. They say it does not include an option for
an immediate and permanent stop to the bombing exercises. The
Puerto Rico government, until recently, had pushed for that.
The Navy sets the date for the referendum -- heightening suspicions
the Pentagon will try to buy a victory, wait for divisions among
leaders, or hold the referendum next year when Rossello and Clinton
A poll among Vieques residents published in Thursday's El
Nuevo Dia states that 79 percent feel the referendum should
be held before bombing training resumes, and only 4 percent would
vote for the Navy to stay past the three years and use live ammunition.
"I've always made sure that (the agreement) is not designed
in a way that we waste the referendum and that the result is against
the interests of the Navy," El Nuevo Dia quoted Cohen
Giving back the western land and offering the $40 million now
is not meant to be an incentive for the people to have the Navy
leave, he said, but rather to "provide an opportunity to
really change the current position of Vieques and the government
of Puerto Rico."
For critics, the intentions were clear even before Cohen spoke.
"They want to give the Navy a 'time out' to see if throwing
money around changes anything, but the people here know that $40
million doesn't solve the problems of employment and the high
cancer rate," said Vieques elementary school teacher Alba
Encarnacion, who served on Rossello's Working Group on Vieques.
Since the decision was announced Jan. 31, people have become
San Juan Mayor Sila Maria Calderon, the Popular Democratic
Party's gubernatorial candidate, resigned from the Working Group
in protest. Religious leaders in the Working Group called acceptance
of continued bombing "immoral."
Rossello threw more fuel on the fire by telling religious leaders
to butt out. The religious hierarchy called for a massive protest
march set for President's Day.
"I think this is a situation where religious disobedience
has to happen because church leaders have gone beyond the scope
of their authority and are taking on roles that in our democratic
society are designated by the vote of the people," Rossello
Some religious leaders said Rossello's statements were like
"Statements like those are a sign of desperation, but
we have the momentum and no one is going to stop this," said
Rev. Wilfredo Estrada, director of the Biblical Society of Puerto