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Decision on Vieques Is Lagging, Lawmakers Say

by Dale Eisman

March 23, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE VIRGINIA PILOT AND THE LEDGER-STAR, NORFOLK, VA. All Rights Reserved.

A pair of House Republicans complained Wednesday that the Clinton administration is moving too slowly to evict demonstrators who for 11 months have blocked Navy use of a bombing range at Vieques , Puerto Rico .

The reluctance to act puts sailors and Marines at risk overseas, argued Reps. James V. Hansen, R-Utah, and Steve Buyer, R-Ind.

The two also said that the Navy and the White House are setting a dangerous precedent in agreeing to provide $40 million in economic aid to Vieques even as they leave the ultimate fate of the range up to the island's 9,000 residents.

The Navy's agreement to allow voters to decide whether it can resume live bombing amounts to a "reward for civil disobedience," Buyer said, and "is completely the wrong way to go."

Hansen meanwhile, recalled assertions by Navy leaders that the range is an irreplaceable part of training for naval forces on the east coast and wondered how the service would react if a Vieques - style demonstration "was going on at Quantico?"

But Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, who bore the brunt of the lawmakers' ire as he appeared before the House Armed Services Committee, argued that Vieques presents a unique set of problems.

Though the Navy is eager to regain control of the range and eventually to see it opened to live fire, "how and when to do that is a Justice Department decision," Danzig said.

He insisted there are good reasons to provide economic aid and to move slowly in evicting the demonstrators.

Typically, military training ranges are on or near military bases and service members pump money and energy into the community, Danzig said. But since 1979, when Marines closed a camp near the bombing range, the Navy essentially has used Vieques only as a target, and so the island has not felt any benefits.

Perhaps more importantly in the current dispute, Viequens and Puerto Ricans see themselves as powerless in Washington, Danzig said. While civilians who live close to military ranges on the U.S. mainland can complain to their congressmen and senators about noise and other hazards, Vieques and the rest of Puerto Rico are represented in Washington by a resident commissioner who has a congressional office and committee memberships but no vote.

Danzig said obvious resentment among Puerto Ricans about the territory's limited control of its affairs led him to conclude that a referendum on the future of the range makes sense as a way to demonstrate to them that their opinions are important.

And though the demonstrators occupied the range ostensibly to protest the death of a security guard whose post was struck by a mis- aimed bomb, that complaint is "not the central issue" now, Danzig added.

The Navy's agreement with Puerto Rico calls for the range to be reopened this spring to dummy bombs and shells and for a referendum to be held sometime after Sept. 1 on the possible resumption of live fire. If it loses that vote, the Navy is to vacate the island entirely by May 2003, a move that some Republicans have warned will lead later to the closing of the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station on the main island of Puerto Rico .

Danzig asserted that the Navy has consistently refused to negotiate with the demonstrators or let its handling of the dispute be driven by their demands. The referendum and the aid package are the product of an agreement between President Clinton and the government of Puerto Rico , he said.

Danzig also underscored portions of the agreement that tie any release of aid funds to renewed availability of the range. As a goodwill gesture, the Navy has given about 100 acres at the end of Vieques ' airport runway to the government of Puerto Rico to assist in airport improvements, he acknowledged, but that land is not part of the aid package, and no Congressional approval was required to surrender it.

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