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Fight For Vieques May Ratchet Up In Puerto Rico A Week After Election
The Governor-Elect Leads An Effort To Force Training There To Stop
by Ivan Roman
November 13, 2000
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Now that the island's elections have swung their way, people fighting to get the U.S. Navy off Vieques are preparing for a full-fledged attack.
Following up on a campaign promise, Puerto Rico 's governor-elect Sila Maria Calderon predicted a face-off with the Navy and White House soon after she takes office Jan. 2 and puts regulations in place that would block bombing there.
Critics of the Jan. 31 presidential directives that were supposed to put this issue to rest got a lift from President Clinton's admission last week that the federal government hasn't fulfilled its side of the bargain.
Religious and civic leaders, itching to renew their struggle to get the Navy out of Vieques , have set a meeting for today, less than a week after the island government that had staunchly defended the agreement with Clinton was voted out of office.
"All the right elements are coming together for the people of Puerto Rico to unite as they were before Jan. 31," said the Rev. Wilfredo Estrada, part of a coalition that led a march in February of tens of thousands against the Navy exercises.
After a wayward bomb used in target practice killed civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez on April 19, 1999, virtually all sectors of Puerto Rican society agreed training exercises should stop. Puerto Ricans also called for the Navy to clean up and give back the three-fourths of the 52-square-mile island municipality it has owned since World War II.
After months of negotiation, President Clinton announced directives Jan. 31 that allowed limited target practice with inert bombs for another three years and took the unprecedented step of letting Vieques voters decide if the Navy will then leave for good. In the interim, Vieques would get $40 million in economic development aid and get back about 8,000 acres of Navy-owned land by Dec. 31.
Vieques would get another $50 million in aid if voters let the Navy stay in its premier training facility in the Atlantic, using live ammunition for the joint air, sea, land and amphibious exercises officials insist are crucial for military readiness.
Calderon, who heads the opposition Popular Democratic Party, said New Progressive Party Gov. Pedro Rossello's agreement with the Clinton directives "betrayed the consensus." Calderon vowed that in the first 100 days of her administration, she would put in place environmental regulations on noise. These would essentially prohibit Navy ship-to-shore shelling off the coast of Vieques and force a head- on collision with the Navy in the courts.
Critics also blast the proposed referendum on Vieques because the Navy sets the date -- which can be as late as February 2002 -- and the option to have the Navy stop bombing immediately is nowhere on the ballot. Calderon plans to push for the Navy and White House to hold the referendum soon and change the choices. If they don't, she says she will hold one of her own. She also wants to renegotiate the agreement.
"Obviously, there are two sides here, so it's going to depend on the strength we take to the table as a united people," said Calderon, the first woman elected governor of Puerto Rico .
The Navy's opponents say the president's comments last week prove their point that the directives are too fragile. Although the White House was able to beat back congressional opposition and get most key points approved last month, negotiators fell short when it came to the land issue.
Of about 8,000 acres that were to go back to Puerto Rico by Dec. 31, only half will be transferred directly to the municipality of Vieques , 800 will go to a conservation trust, and 3,100 will go to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In comments on the radio program Democracy Now, Clinton acknowledged Republicans in Congress had broken the agreement. If he can't find a way to give all that land back to Puerto Rico , Clinton said, "then the people of Puerto Rico , I think, have a right to say the federal government broke its word, and the training has to stop right now."
He added, "I think the training should stop, because the people don't want it there. But we need a place to train, and we are in the process of finding another place. I was disappointed that the Congress didn't fully honor [the agreement]. But I think I can find a way to keep the commitment in the federal government anyway. And that is what I'm trying to do."
Several Navy critics and Calderon immediately asked Clinton, now free of the pressures of an election campaign, to stop the bombing by executive order. But officials say they shouldn't bet on it.
Jeffrey Farrow, co-chair of the White House Working Group on Puerto Rico , said Congress has not ended its session, so White House officials are still submitting legislation to get the land in question transferred to Puerto Rican authorities. The hard-fought process to get this agreement indicates some people in Washington won't be receptive to Calderon's call to renegotiate.
"Clearly, the Congress will not be willing to do less training than the agreement provides for," Farrow said. "We won close votes in the House on some of the agreement, but we still haven't gotten all of it, and we're still fighting to get it."
During the campaign, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore both promised to honor the Vieques agreement if elected.