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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 Rico.

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 leave office.

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 as saying.

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 increasingly polarized.

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 said.

Some religious leaders said Rossello's statements were like "denying democracy."

"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 Rico.

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