THE VIRGINIA-PILOT AND THE LEDGER-STAR, NORFOLK, VA
Navy's New Man On Vieques Optimistic About Progress
by Dale Eisman
March 18, 2000
Four weeks into what may be the most sensitive assignment in the Navy, Rear Adm. Kevin P. Green insisted Friday that he's gotten "a deeply heartwarming and gratifying reception" as he begins trying to win Puerto Rican support for reopening the service's disputed bombing range on Vieques Island.
A self-styled "simple sailor," Green, 50, said he's trying to learn Spanish and getting around both Vieques and the main island of Puerto Rico to make the Navy's case for the range to political, business and civic leaders.
He's also pushing implementation of a $40 million economic aid package the service hopes will soothe long-standing resentments toward the Navy among Viequens and Puerto Ricans generally.
While he said he was "very encouraged by the conversations I've had," Green acknowledged that his meetings to date have not included Roman Catholic leaders who have been among the most outspoken critics of the Navy's presence on Vieques. He also has not met with any of the several dozen demonstrators whose camp-in has blocked use of the range for almost a year.
Green said he would not predict whether a majority of Vieques' 9,000 residents ultimately will vote for a resumption of live bombing and shelling on the 900-acre range. A referendum on the subject is expected sometime next year.
"It's a real challenge," Green added in a telephone interview, his first conversation with a mainland reporter since he set up shop at the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station. "There is no certainty with regard to how this will play out."
Green also offered no forecasts about when the demonstrators might leave or be evicted by federal authorities. The 50-year-old training area has been closed since last April, when a civilian employed as a security guard was killed by a mis-aimed bomb.
The protest that began soon after the accident initially focused on claims that the Navy has abused Vieques ' sensitive environment and ruined fishing and tourism on the 20-mile long island. More recently, it has become a symbol of a deeper dispute over whether Puerto Rico should remain a U.S. territory, become the 51st state or declare its independence.
Navy officials describe the Vieques range as a unique national asset, insisting that it is the only place in the Atlantic where sailors and Marines can practice an amphibious assault much as they would conduct it in wartime, with bombs and naval gunfire hitting targets slightly inland as Marines storm the beach.
Green said he's making that case everywhere he goes, reminding Puerto Ricans that he and other Navy officers have "a moral obligation" to provide the best possible equipment and training to U.S. troops before they're deployed to trouble spots such as the Balkans and the Persian Gulf.
"The `man on the street' of Puerto Rico is a great patriot," Green said, and so the message is well-received. While delivering it, he added, he's trying to remind Puerto Ricans of "the great advantage of working closely with us."
Gov. Pedro Rossello, who last year warned senators that any move to arrest the demonstrators and resume bombing would trigger a larger protest and acts of civil disobedience, agreed in January to support reopening of the range to dummy bombs in return for the aid package. He and the Clinton administration also agreed to let voters decide whether live ordnance should also be permitted, and the Navy promised an additional $50 million in aid if they go along.
The demonstrators have vowed not to leave. And though Navy Secretary Richard Danzig has said the service will be patient about getting back on the range, some congressional Republicans are urging the service and the Justice Department to act.
While declining to discuss when or how the range might be cleared, Green said Friday he's satisfied with Gov. Rossello's cooperation in implementing the agreement. Rossello has promised that local police will act to keep any new demonstrators from moving in once evictions begin.
The governor is "a world-class leader and planner with whom I'm working very closely," Green said. "He is fully committed to carrying out all of the dimensions of the agreement."