Clinton Discusses Status With Puerto Ricos Leaders,
Defends Bombing Exercises
Clinton Discusses Status With Puerto Ricos Leaders
June 29, 2000
WASHINGTON President Clinton told the leaders of Puerto Rico's three political parties Wednesday he supports self-determination for the U.S. island. But they said Clinton did not respond to their pleas to stop the Navy's practice bombing on the offshore island of Vieques.
It was believed to be the first time that a U.S. president has sat with the leaders of all three Puerto Rican parties representing the status options of statehood, independence and the current commonwealth arrangement to discuss ways of resolving the status question.
"The president listened to everyone's opinion, and at the end he reiterated that he wanted to design or set in motion a process that would be transparent, open and fair that would lead to a decision of the status issue," White House spokeswoman Nanda Chitre said.
The debate has driven Puerto Rico's politics for most of the 102 years since the United States took possession of the Caribbean island as booty at the end of the Spanish-American War.
San Juan Mayor Sila Calderon, leader of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, said she was disappointed with the meeting because Clinton refused to discuss the Navy bombing on Vieques.
"Vieques is a much more important issue at this time, and I don't know if he grasped the magnitude of the explosive situation there is over there," she said.
Both Calderon and Independence Party leader Ruben Berrios said they asked Clinton to immediately call a referendum for islanders to decided whether they want the Navy to stay or go.
The controversy raged anew after the Navy this week held its biggest war games on the island since a 1999 fatal bombing. They ended Wednesday with bitterness on both sides from Puerto Rican protesters who tried to risk their lives by breaking onto the range to stop the training and from the Navy for an alleged attack in which two sailors were injured.
Clinton told them he, too, preferred to have the referendum "sooner than later," according to Jeffrey Farrow, the president's adviser on Puerto Rico. The Navy will decide to hold the referendum, under an agreement negotiated with Clinton, the Pentagon and the Puerto Rican government.
Also attending the meeting was Carlos Pesquera, president of the governing pro-statehood New Progressive Party. All three politicians are candidates for governor in the November elections.
Puerto Rico's 3.8 million people are U.S. citizens who can be drafted into the U.S. military but do not get to vote for president and have no vote in Congress. They do not pay most federal taxes though Washington sends down about $13 billion a year, nearly a third of the island's official gross domestic product.
Clinton Defends Puerto Rico Bombing Exercises
June 28, 2000
WASHINGTON - President Bill Clinton on Wednesday defended U.S. bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques , and said a future referendum there is the best way to decide whether the bombing range should stay open, a U.S. official said.
In a meeting with top Puerto Rican leaders, Clinton defended a January agreement between the island and the U.S. Navy, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Under the deal, the range will stay open for three more years using dummy bombs in return for a referendum allowing the islands' people to decide if they want the U.S. military to leave.
A U.S. official said the topic of Vieques was raised several time in the president's talks at the White House with Puerto Rican leaders, including Gov. Pedro Rossello.
"The president stated he believed the January agreement was the best way to resolve the impasse," the official said. "It would also give people most affected the ability to choose for themselves."
The issue of U.S. Navy bombing at the Camp Garcia base on Vieques , a 33,000-acre (13,355-hectare) island of 9,300 people just off the Puerto Rican coast, has caused heated debate for months.
Dozens of protesters occupied the bombing range after an errant bomb killed a civilian security guard in April 1999. The guard's death touched a raw nerve in Puerto Rico , a U.S. territory.
The Navy says the training range is essential to ensuring the readiness of the pilots. Some islanders say the bombing has poisoned soil and water and hurt tourism and the fishing industry.
The Pentagon on Tuesday said two U.S. sailors were injured when demonstrators threw iron bars to protest resumption of Navy bombing exercises on Vieques . Bombing resumed on Sunday for the first time since the fatal accident last year.
Rossello has come under fire for the January deal. Many Vieques residents and Puerto Ricans say it was a sellout by Rossello's pro-statehood New Progressive Party government.
Clinton and Puerto Rican leaders and politicians also discussed the issue of Puerto Rico 's status during an hour of talks on Wednesday, the U.S. official said.
Puerto Rican politicians such as San Juan Mayor Sila Calderon said they had good talks with the president.
"What we agreed on is to continue talking," Calderon said.
The U.S. official said Clinton told the Puerto Rican delegation that he had no preferences on the decision by Puerto Rico on its status with the United States, but he urged the delegation to start working on a plan to decide how to resolve the issue.
More than a century after the United States ousted Spain in the 1898 Spanish-American War, Puerto Ricans are still divided on their future.
In a December 1998 referendum, 46.5 percent of Puerto Ricans backed statehood but a narrow majority chose continued commonwealth status. Only 2.6 percent voted for independence.