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The Washington Post

Calderon's Pledges on Vieques Appear to Break Pact

by John Marino

November 15, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Two days before being elected the first female governor of Puerto Rico , Sila Maria Calderon addressed her supporters at a campaign closing rally in front of a huge banner that said "Paz Para Vieques" or "Peace for Vieques."

"I want your help in tearing out corruption by its roots. I want your help in obtaining peace for Vieques," the anti- statehood candidate told the large crowd, many of whom were dressed in bright red, the color of Calderon's Popular Democratic Party.

Those two issues--ending government corruption and the unpopular Navy bombing on across the island town of Vieques--drove the pro-commonwealth Calderon's campaign for Puerto Rico 's historic governor's mansion, La Fortaleza. She won the Nov. 7 election, capturing 48.5 percent of the vote against her main rival, Carlos Pesquera of the pro- statehood New Progressive Party (NPP), who received 45.7 percent of the vote.

She plans to immediately undertake audits on large public infrastructure projects and government operations in an effort to expose the corruption that plagued the NPP during the administration of Gov. Pedro Rossello, a pro- statehood Democrat who did not seek reelection after a second term.

But fulfilling her campaign pledge on Vieques may be more difficult because several of her pledges appear to break a White House-brokered accord on the future use of Vieques reached between the Navy and Puerto Rico government last January.

Rossello warned against the consequences of breaking the accords Monday, after a brief meeting with Calderon to set up a transition schedule. "If the Navy believes the government of Puerto Rico is not complying with the directives, it will feel free to break them also. Then well be back to the status quo with the Navy doing what it wants," Rossello said.

Outrage over the use of Vieques bubbled over in April 1999 after the death of civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez, who was killed by an errant Navy bomb during a botched practice run. The accident unleashed pent-up resentment in Vieques and across Puerto Rico that had been building since land was expropriated from local residents in the 1940s to create the bombing range. Top Navy officials insist there is nowhere else that the Atlantic Fleet can conduct exercises with aircraft dropping bombs, ships firing shells and Marines storming a beach simultaneously.

The heart of the accord requires the Navy to call a referendum by February 2002 in which residents would be asked whether they want the Navy to leave by May 1, 2003, or whether they would allow service personnel to remain indefinitely in exchange for $50 million in economic aid.

Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, as well as Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, have said they would abide by the accord, which cuts Navy training to 90 days a year on Vieques and allows the Navy to use only dummy munitions. If, through referendum , residents say the Navy can continue to use Vieques, the military again would be able to use live munitions.

Two days after the election, Calderon said she would press for a meeting with the next president to get what she called a better deal for Puerto Rico and to inform him of the popular opposition to the current agreement.

Much of that opposition is because the Navy gets to name the date of the referendum , any time on or before Feb. 1, 2002; opponents also say the offer of $40 million in economic aid is an attempt to buy off Vieques's 9,600 residents.

Calderon wants an immediate referendum on Vieques's future, and she says she will call one if the Navy won't. To compensate Vieques's residents for the potential loss of $50 million in economic aid from the federal government, Calderon pledged to spend $50 million there during her four-year term.

Local Navy officials say that campaigning by the commonwealth government against the naval presence would break the spirit of the accord, but the White House says the commonwealth has the right to increase spending in Vieques.

However, if Calderon calls an independent referendum , the federal government would not be obliged to abide by its results.

Calderon also has pledged to remove the Puerto Rico Police Riot Squad from the front gate of Camp Garcia, which contains the Navy's bombing range. This could violate a portion of the accord in which Puerto Rico pledged to help ensure that the range is clear of protesters and available for Navy use.

Calderon's most controversial pledge regarding Vieques is her vow to tighten commonwealth noise regulations--a back-door way of ending naval ship-to-shore shelling off the island.

As justification, Calderon is relying on a report by Richard Copaken, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who was instrumental in ending the Navy's use in 1975 of Culebra, another Puerto Rican island town.

Copaken said that underwater sonic booms caused by the shelling may pose a danger to bathers, particularly children.

Copaken relies primarily on Navy studies and the work of two technical experts: Arthur Popper, an expert on the effects of noise on fish, and Mardi Hastings, a physicist and acoustician who has worked with the Navy on the effects of sound. Popper theorizes that shock waves produced by the blasts of Navy Mark 45 guns, fired aboard ships seven miles offshore, are magnified to dangerous levels as they travel through the water.

Children are at increased risk because their lungs resonate at the same frequency of the sonic booms produced by Navy guns, Copaken said.

The Navy has called Copaken's report "a barrage of baseless allegations."

Copaken's report also says that the shock waves from the Navy guns extend out through a vast area, putting bathers at risk in the civilian area of Vieques and also on the beaches of Culebra, a nearby island.

Rossello, the outgoing governor, called Copaken's report "ridiculous." And Rossello's administration and the Navy said that Copaken's experts relied on a flawed formula for measuring sonic booms.

After Calderon's pledges during the fall campaign to end the Navy's use of Vieques by various means, Jeff Farrow, co-chair of the White House Working Group on Puerto Rico , said that breaking the accord would free the Navy from abiding by the results of a referendum and would not be obliged to leave.

Calderon's work, however, already has begun. On Monday, she and her former opponents--Pesquera and Ruben Berrios, along with a group of religious and community leaders--signed a letter to President Clinton urging him to order the Navy out of Vieques before his term ends in January.

Saying they represent the unanimity of public opinion in Puerto Rico , the group, appealing to Clinton's commitment to justice and defense of human rights, urged him to order the immediate and permanent cessation of all military maneuvers and training operations on Vieques.

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