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New York Daily News

Early W. Test Lies With Vieques


December 22, 2000
Copyright © 2000 New York Daily News. All Rights Reserved.

WITHIN DAYS of his inauguration, George W. Bush will face a new confrontation with Puerto Rico over the U.S. Navy's 60-year-old bombing range on the inhabited island of Vieques.

The Vieques dispute dropped from national attention after President Clinton reached a compromise Jan. 31 with Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello.

But the controversy never went away for Puerto Rico 's 3.8 million U.S. citizens, and it may become one of the first big tests of a Bush presidency.

The Clinton-Rossello agreement forced an end to all live bombing of Vieques and gave the Navy three years to find another practice site. It permitted the Navy to resume reduced training exercises with inert bombs and dummy ammunition, and left open the possibility that the Navy could keep the range open beyond May 1, 2003, if the people of Vieques gave their approval in a referendum .

An unusual provision allowed the Navy to set a date for the referendum . To sweeten the deal, $40 million was earmarked in development aid for Vieques. And 7,000 acres of Navy land on the western end of the island was to be returned to Puerto Rico , no matter how the vote came out.

From the moment it was announced, the Clinton-Rossello pact faced widespread criticism - and gigantic anti-Navy demonstrations - from those who want immediate withdrawal. Hundreds of people were arrested for trespassing on the range to disrupt maneuvers.

The Navy's staunchest supporters in Congress loudly opposed the agreement.

But it wasn't until Election Day that the full impact of the deal became clear.

While most Americans were fixated on the Florida presidential recount, few noticed the amazing victory that Vieques supporters pulled off in Puerto Rico .

Rossello's pro- statehood New Progressive Party, which sponsored the compromise, suffered a stunning defeat. The party lost the governor's seat, its majority in both houses of the Puerto Rican Legislature, and the post of resident commissioner, the island's lone, nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives.

Sila Calderon, leader of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, was narrowly elected the island's first woman governor, and polls showed her strong opposition to the Vieques agreement provided the margin of victory. In Vieques itself, a member of Calderon's party, who was arrested twice this year in anti-Navy protests, won the race for mayor in a landslide.

After the election, the leaders of Puerto Rico 's three major political parties appealed to Clinton for an immediate Navy withdrawal from Vieques.

Calderon went further. She promised that if the Navy did not set an early date for the referendum , her first act after her Jan. 2 inauguration will be to organize her own referendum , and to include immediate withdrawal as an option.

She also promised to remove Puerto Rico 's riot police from Vieques, where they have been protecting the range from protesters, and to implement a noise-pollution law that would make further bombing illegal.

In effect, she declared the Clinton-Rossello agreement dead.

Clinton admitted as much himself during an Election Day radio interview. Asked about Vieques by Pacifica Radio's Amy Goodman, the President said: "The Republicans in Congress broke the agreement, and instead of giving the western part of the island to Puerto Rico , gave it to the Interior Department to manage. If I can't find a way to . . . honor the agreement . . . 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."

Clinton then made clear that he, too, backs a permanent Navy withdrawal: "I think the training should stop because the people don't want it there," he said. "But we need a place to train, and we are in the process of finding another place."

If the commander-in-chief supports the Navy's withdrawal, and the new government of Puerto Rico wants it as well, then why even schedule a vote?

New York labor leader Dennis Rivera, who has met with Clinton several times about Vieques, says the President told him recently Navy officials had threatened the White House with "several resignations" if Clinton ordered immediate closure.

A White House official this week confirmed there had been resignation threats. Also, some Clinton aides note, the Pentagon wields huge influence on Capitol Hill on the issue, and Congress must ultimately approve transfers of military bases.

The admirals, in other words, have successfully defied their commander-in-chief.

On Dec. 11, Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig finally set a date for the Vieques referendum : Nov. 6. The same day he wrote to the new governor-elect warning that the entire agreement was in jeopardy because of her statements.

BUT CALDERON and most Puerto Ricans believe 11 months is too long to wait for the vote. With the Navy scheduling a new round of troop exercises for Vieques for Jan. 22, two days after Bush becomes President, opponents are already gearing up for new protests.

But this time the governor will be on their side - and that promises to turn Vieques into one of Bush's first big tests.

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