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Solution on Vieques Takes a Step Forward

by Manuel Ernesto Rivera

February 29, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 -- Despite growing protests at home, the governor of Puerto Rico met with White House officials today and reaffirmed his support for President Clinton's plan to resume Navy exercises, which will be at least initially limited, on the island of Vieques.

The governor, Pedro J. Rossello, also took possession of 110 acres of land on the western end of Vieques that the Navy transferred to local control. The transfer was part of a deal to allow the renewed training before residents of the island decide whether to bar the exercises permanently.

''The first step in the overall resolution of the issue was taken today,'' the White House press secretary, Joe Lockhart, said after a meeting between Mr. Rossello and the White House chief of staff, John D. Podesta. ''There's obviously a number of other steps that will have to be taken, including a referendum where the people of Vieques will decide their future.''

Exercises on Vieques, where the Navy maintains a bombing range that it considers essential to the training of its Atlantic fleet, were suspended last spring after a wayward bomb killed a civilian security guard, an accident that intensified longtime protests against the service's presence.

Mr. Clinton and Mr. Rossello agreed last month that the Navy would be allowed to resume training using inert bombs. The pact calls for a referendum, likely to be held in 2001, that will allow Vieques residents to choose between the unfettered resumption of training, with live bombs, and exercises with dummy bombs until a Navy withdrawal in May 2003.

In San Juan last week, some 85,000 people demonstrated against the agreement. But Mr. Rossello said today that the administration's proposal was the best solution to the standoff between Vieques islanders and the Navy.

He said that as details of the proposal became more widely known, ''it will allow much more support for all aspects of that presidential order.''

The Navy has not announced a date for resuming training, but Mr. Rossello pledged the Puerto Rican government's full cooperation in clearing the test range of protesters.

''We will take any steps that are appropriate to make sure that the range is available,'' he said.

The Clinton administration is seeking $40 million to address the health and environmental concerns raised by the training on Vieques.

''The people of Vieques have placed on the table concerns as to what has happened to their health, to their environment, to their opportunity for economic development,'' Mr. Rossello said today. ''The funds that are requested are precisely to respond to those very valid concerns.''

The 110 acres transferred today are to be used to extend an airport on Vieques, allowing larger aircraft and so stimulating growth.

A deed for the land was drawn up and signed by Mr. Rossello and Adm. Kevin Green, commander of Naval Forces South, in a small ceremony, said Maria Echaveste, deputy White House chief of staff.

''The governor believes that actually taking steps to implement the president's directives would be helpful in helping reduce the level of opposition down in Puerto Rico,'' Ms. Echaveste said.

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