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White House: Vieques to define federal funding and status politics

Refusal by PR to accept Clinton's orders to be read as desire to assert "national powers"

by Ivonne Garcia

March 16, 2000
Copyright © 2000 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON, D.C. ­ A flat-out rejection of President Clinton's directives on Vieques may echo through the halls of the U.S. Congress as a desire by Puerto Ricans to assert "national power," creating reverberations in terms of additional federal funding and status politics, White House officials say.

The refusal by a majority of Puerto Ricans to accept the president's final offer on Vieques could be read by the powers that be as a sign that island residents want to make a "national decision" relating to military activity, which falls squarely under the U.S. government's purview.

This also may be interpreted as meaning that Puerto Ricans are unwilling to continue as part of the "American political family," said Jeffrey Farrow, co-chairman of the White House Interagency Working Group on Puerto Rico.

In an exclusive two-hour interview with CARIBBEAN BUSINESS at his office in the Old Executive Office Building, Farrow said the Vieques situation is a "defining issue" for Puerto Rico.

"If after all this effort and attention that is being paidmost people refuse to accept what the U.S. government says is essential, then many people will come to understand that [Puerto Rico] is not a place that ultimately wants to be part of our political family," Farrow said. "This is not statehood I'm talking about. I'm talking about whether [Puerto Rico] wants to be in any way part of the American political family, where you have basic political obligations."

Many members of the U.S. Congress--both Republican and Democrat--oppose the president's agreement on Vieques, and some, like Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., are using it as an argument to halt the allocation of additional money and perks to Puerto Rico.

Although most of the more than $11 billion yearly federal allocation to Puerto Rico at this time is not in jeopardy, additional funding--including $40 million for Vieques alone-- may be jeopardized if Clinton's directives can't be implemented.

"I can't say that it's irrational when people say why should we provide more assistance to people who are unwilling to meet the minimum requirements of national defense," Farrow said, noting that the current commonwealth status gives the United States exclusive responsibility for defense.

On Jan. 31, Clinton issued a series of directives after several prior attempts to reach a compromise on Vieques were vocally opposed by both the Puerto Rico government and a majority of island residents.

In his orders, Clinton allocated $40 million for economic development and environmental protection in Vieques from the current fiscal year 2000 U.S. federal budget, and mandated the transfer of a total 8,200 acres worth $300 million from the hands of the U.S. Navy to the Puerto Rico government. He also limited Navy exercises to 90 days per year from the previous 180 days a year that was the norm, and only with non-explosive or dummy ordnance.

Further, Clinton ordered a referendum among viequenses by February 2002 to determine the fate of the Navy's presence in the island municipality. If Vieques residents vote against the Navy staying, all military exercises will cease by May 2003. But should viequenses vote in favor of the Navy staying, and resuming live-fire exercises, an additional $50 million will be funneled to the financially strapped municipality.

"The president has addressed all of the issues and concerns that the people of Vieques articulated with respect to the Navy training on the island," Farrow said. "Safety concerns, health concerns, economic concerns, [and] environmental concerns."

Last week, a House committee approved the $40 million for Vieques, pending removal of the protesters from the restricted areas. Already, the Navy has transferred 110 acres of land to extend the airport and has begun removing its weapons from storage facilities on the island municipality.

Clinton's directives came in the wake of the bombing accident that killed Navy civilian guard David Sanes Rodriguez at the Navy's firing range in April 1999. That accident galvanized public opinion in Puerto Rico against the Navy's continued use of the municipality for military practices. The Navy has been using Vieques for naval military maneuvers since the 1940s.

Shortly after the accident, officials of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) and other protesters settled within the Navy's restricted areas in Vieques as part of a civil disobedience strategy to stop the resumption of military exercises on the Isla Nena.

"The civil disobedience then threatens this assistance being provided to the community in Vieques," Farrow said. "Let's be clear about this, this is not a question of whether people like this. The job of government isn't to do things that are popular all the time."

He said Gov. Pedro Rossello was told in no uncertain terms that this accord was the best Clinton could do. Rossello was accused by the opposition of breaking the "consensus" on no more bombing on Vieques by accepting Clinton's directives. "The governor made the tough decision," Farrow said. "It wasn't the one he wanted to make."

Despite repeated statements, even during an unprecedented televised address by Clinton himself, that this is all that can be granted right now, officials of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), the PIP, and leaders of the Catholic Church in Puerto Rico continue to hold out for a cease to all bombing.

"It's destructive to do this, to hold open these illusions that have no basis," Farrow said. "The president has said he has addressed the concerns raised [by viequenses] to the fullest extent possible. It is counterproductive becausepeople think this is another proposal.

They're not, these are directives, final decisions reached after many months [of tough negotiations] and different versions of proposals."

Although the Navy's original claims that they could never replace Vieques have not held up, it is true that they have no other immediate "ready and reliable" replacement, and that they won't have one until May 2003, Farrow said.

In fact, moving exercises scheduled for Vieques to the Italian island of Sardinia and to Scotland has created additional problems for the Navy in terms of opposition in those countries to their presence.

"Concern has been raised in Scotland by environmentalists and the Scottish Parliament, including saying 'why should we do this if Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, won't accept it?'" Farrow said.

"Those are not ranges that we can use every time we need to do training."

In response to a question on the use of blanks, which don't involve actual projectiles and only make an explosive sound at the point of discharge, making them safer than live or inert ordnance, Farrow said Navy officials are studying all possibilities. "The standard we used in negotiating this agreement on non-explosives is that if [the inert, non-explosive projectile] fell a foot away from you it would not harm you," he said.

The bottom line, Farrow said, is that following the path the opposition points to likely will define Puerto Rico's situation, whether or not people realize it, and whether or not that's what they mean to do. It may be, he said, that the Vieques issue has made most Puerto Ricans dissatisfied with the current political situation, even if they don't make the concomitant connection that they should change their status.

"That's not unusual in history," Farrow said. "In many historical events that are key, people didn't sit around and say 'this is where we're going to make this fundamental decision as a society.' Something happens that precipitates an action that makes people decide they're going in a different direction."

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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