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Vieques: Is A Deal Still A Deal?

by Lance Oliver

October 13, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

A year and a half after errant Navy bombs killed security guard David Sanes Rodríguez and eight months after President Clinton issued a directive that was intended to "resolve" the dispute over the U.S. Navy’s use of the island of Vieques for training, the issue remains fluid. The situation is far from "resolved" and is unlikely to be settled soon.

One fact of life to be faced is that whatever agreements the president negotiates and approves, such as the one both Clinton and Gov. Pedro Rosselló signed on to back in January, can be meddled with by Congress, especially considering that the Republicans control Congress and many of them have a view of the Vieques situation that is quite different from Clinton’s.

Clinton administration officials have long said that the part of the Clinton plan that would be hard to implement would not be the $40 million in aid for Vieques (with a promise of an additional $50 million if the residents vote in favor of allowing the Navy to stay and resume live-fire training) but rather the transfer of land. That’s the issue Congress took up this week.

House and Senate conferees agreed that if the Navy is voted off of Vieques, part of the land would be transferred to the municipality and part to the U.S. Department of the Interior. Under the original Clinton plan, the land abandoned by the Navy would have been transferred to the Puerto Rico government.

As the Miami Herald stated in an editorial about Vieques several months ago, "a deal is a deal." But now Congressional tinkering raises the fundamental question of when a deal is no longer the same deal originally agreed to. The money may still be there, the plans for the Navy to exit if it loses the referendum is still there, but what about the land?

Are the changes made by Congress insignificant or do they fundamentally change the agreement?

To the many people in Puerto Rico who never supported the Clinton plan in the first place, the question is irrelevant. But it could be a relevant issue in what is shaping up as a very tight race for governor.

San Juan Mayor Sila Calderón, the Popular Democratic Party’s candidate, has said that as governor she would try to negotiate a better deal for Vieques. She criticized the governor for accepting Clinton’s terms and urging other Puerto Ricans to go along. Exactly what leverage Calderón could muster with Congress is hard to imagine. It’s hard to find anyone, except among her most avid admirers, who think she could do anything at all. Maybe that’s why lately she has taken a new approach and has said that as governor she would pass laws that would effectively ban the Navy from using Vieques as a bombing range by limiting sound levels.

However, to the extent that the mayor can portray the Clinton plan as bad for Vieques and getting worse by the minute, the more pressure she can put on Carlos Pesquera, the New Progressive Party candidate, who is tied to the agreement his former boss, Rosselló, accepted.

Calderón can appeal to Puerto Rican voters who care first and foremost about the Vieques issue (and many of them do) by saying that Pesquera showed himself to be a tool of the Americans when he accepted the deal and then confirmed it by sticking by the Clinton plan even when Congress made the terms worse for Puerto Rico by taking away some of the land.

The same day the House of Representatives passed its version of the military funding bill that contained the Vieques terms, Calderón’s running mate, resident commissioner candidate Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, began the attack, saying the bill in Congress "changed and violated" the original agreement and made it worse for Puerto Rico and Vieques.

Most of the voters who will mark their ballots based on the Vieques issue probably weren’t going to vote for Pesquera anyway, but many of them will be choosing between casting a sentimental vote for Puerto Rican Independence Party President Rubén Berríos or a practical vote for Calderón. And that dynamic, the question of how many people decide to vote for Berríos or decide instead to vote against Pesquera by supporting Calderón may very will be the one that decides the election.

So the ramifications of the actions in Congress this week are likely to be felt in San Juan more than Washington, and on the main island of Puerto Rico just as much as on the "isla nena," Vieques.

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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