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May 3, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE NEW YORK TIMES COMPANY. All Rights Reserved.



May 3, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The Clinton administration is preparing to evict dozens of protesters camped at the Navy bombing range on Vieques , an island off the coast of Puerto Rico . Instead of engaging in a fight now, Washington should wait until Vieques residents decide in a vote next year whether they want the Navy to continue to use the island. If the Navy is welcome after the vote, protesters can then be removed.

Navy training on Vieques has been suspended since April of last year, when a civilian guard was killed in a bombing accident. After months of angry protests by island residents, who are American citizens, the Clinton administration reached an agreement with Gov. Pedro Rossello of Puerto Rico in January.

The agreement allows the Navy to resume training on the range with inert bombs until a referendum is held next year so that the island's 9,400 residents can choose between two options. They can vote to end all Navy training by May 2003 or allow the Navy to stay and resume its exercises, including the use of live bombs. Washington has promised to give $40 million for economic development on Vieques , provided that training resumes before the vote. The island would receive $50 million more if the residents voted to allow the Navy to stay on.

But in order to resume training now with inert bombs, federal law enforcement officers will have to remove the demonstrators. Though Governor Rossello has said he would support clearing the bombing range, it is not apparent how that operation will be managed. There is concern that it could result in violence or provoke more protests elsewhere on Puerto Rico.

A more prudent course would be for the Navy to hold off on training until the Vieques residents vote. The Navy insists it cannot conduct combined combat exercises anywhere in the Western Atlantic but Vieques . But a presidential panel recommended last year that the Navy leave the island in five years, suggesting that alternatives can be found. It is time the Navy left Vieques , unless the islanders affirmatively choose otherwise.

The Navy wouldn't conduct such exercises on the Florida Keys or Martha's Vineyard.

We sympathize with protesters who want the U.S. Navy to stop bombing on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. But a deal is a deal. And the one agreed to by the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments in January stipulated that the Navy could resume limited training on its Vieques range this month, while Vieques residents would vote to decide if the Navy could stay or leave after 2003.

The compromise was reasonable, and both governments must deliver. That means that protesters trying to stop the Navy from resuming its training must leave Navy property, we hope peacefully. To avoid exacerbating tensions, the federal and Puerto Rican governments should try every means of persuasion possible before sending in FBI-led forces to roust and arrest protesters by force.

Some 50 protesters, led primarily by the fringe Puerto Rican Independence Party, are camped out on the Navy's target range. They are intent on stopping even the use of ``dummy'' bombs that contain no explosives, which are part of the agreed-upon compromise. The arrival yesterday of two naval warships heightened tensions.

Navy officials insist that the Vieques range is vital to its combat readiness, the only place with enough uncongested air, sea and land for comprehensive shelling and amphibious assault practice.

But protesters arguments also have merit. Many point to the toxic residues from explosives as the cause of health and environmental damage. Vieques's 9,300 civilian residents reportedly suffer a cancer rate 26 percent higher than that of Puerto Rico as a whole. Doctors also note high levels of birth defects, skin diseases, asthma and other respiratory diseases.

After bombing there for 60 years, the killing of a civilian by an errant bomb a year ago halted the Navy's live-artillery exercises and unleashed long pent-up complaints that the practice was rooted in a colonialists' mentality.

The reality is that the Navy wouldn't conduct live-bomb practices on islands off the U.S. mainland, not in the Florida Keys or on Martha's Vineyard. Moreover it's known that the Vieques range was apt to be questioned since 1975, when President Gerald Ford stopped the Navy's use of a target range on Culebra, another Puerto Rican island.

Instead of arguing now to keep its Vieques practice range, the Navy should be searching for the best alternative. Get the protesters out of there as gently as possible. Then, as agreed, let the people of Vieques vote on their own future.

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