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Sun-Sentinel, Ft. Lauderdale

Making A Bad Situation Worse

October 14, 2000
Copyright © 2000 Sun-Sentinel Ft. Lauderdale. All Rights Reserved.

The renewal of joint air, land and sea maneuvers in Vieques, Puerto Rico -- before local residents have an opportunity to vote on the matter -- is a bad idea.

But this is what is about to happen. The USS Harry S Truman Battle Group is sailing into a tense situation. About 16,000 U.S. Navy, Army, Air Force and Marine personnel are set to begin training next week. Many Puerto Ricans oppose these war games on the tiny island off eastern Puerto Rico. These new exercises are certain to spark a new wave of protests.

Is it worth the turmoil? Under presidential orders, the Navy cannot use live ordnance in Vieques until voters have their say in a referendum to be held in the next 14 months. Already, officers involved in smaller exercises over the summer say that training with dummy bombs compromises troop preparedness.

In other words, American servicemen and women training in Vieques are not being prepared for the real thing.

If military exercises off Puerto Rico are not getting the troops ready for war, then what are they accomplishing? Apparently not much, except to make a bad situation worse.

Vieques has been the site of protests since local security guard David Sanes Rodriguez was killed on April 19, 1999 by two errant 500- pound bombs. The controversy closed the bombing range for about a year. It reopened after President Clinton reached an agreement with the Commonwealth government of Puerto Rico, calling for Vieques voters to decide before 2003 on whether the Navy should stay or leave. The agreement also cut the number of training days and banned the use of live ordnance -- unless voters approve this in the referendum .

The matter, however, is far from resolved. No date has been set for the Vieques vote. Further, Congress has not approved everything the White House promised in the agreement. Lawmakers have eliminated a key element of the Vieques package -- the transfer of 8,000 acres of Navy land in western Vieques to local authorities.

After the Navy failed to honor commitments made in 1983 to help develop Vieques' economy and halt damage to the environment, the Clinton administration is making promises that it cannot keep.

There is no situation like Vieques anywhere in the United States - - no place where bombs rain on a small island that 9,400 people call home. An analogy would be bombing part of Key West and imagining what this would do to tourism, human health and the environment. A lawsuit against the Navy, filed by a New York-based environmental group, is winding its way through federal court. It alleges the Navy has violated the Endangered Species Act through six decades of bombing and shelling a small Caribbean island.

The Navy owns three-quarters of Vieques, and claims there is no other site available for joint military maneuvers. This is hard to believe. In fairness to the military, its mission is to prepare troops going into harm's way, and to defend the nation.

But national security concerns must be balanced with respect for the democratic rights of nearly 4 million residents of Puerto Rico, who are U.S. citizens and who do not vote for the president or members of Congress. It's the White House's responsibility to find a fair solution to the Vieques controversy. So far, it's not doing a very good job of this.

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