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Vieques Aggravates Issue Of P.R. Status


June 30, 2000
Copyright © 2000 NEW YORK DAILY NEWS. All Rights Reserved.

WHILE MOST OF the national press focused on Wednesday's return of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez to his native Cuba, few reporters bothered to cover the historic summit meeting President Clinton held the same day with leaders of Puerto Rico's three major political parties over that island's status .

During the 102 years that Puerto Rico has been a U.S. possession, no President ever has bothered to sit down with leaders of all the factions on the island to work out a resolution of the thorny status issue.

The summit came amid continued protests over the Navy's using the inhabited island of Vieques for target practice. More than 160 people were arrested this week alone for trespassing on the Vieques range, bringing arrests since May to more than 400.

During the summit, Clinton refused to rehash an agreement he reached with island Gov. Pedro Rossello. The agreement paves the way for the Navy to abandon the range in three years but allows reduced maneuvers with dummy bombs until then.

Clinton told the island leaders that Vieques was only a "symptom" of the larger problem: that Puerto Rico's final status has yet to be resolved.

Before the Navy agrees to leave Vieques for good, the agreement stipulates that a majority on Vieques must vote in a referendum for closing the range. The Navy will decide the date of the referendum , but it can be no later than February 2002.

The Clinton-Rossello agreement has been blasted by the island's two main opposition parties and by scores of civic and religious groups that want the Navy to end all bombing immediately.

A recent poll by the Catholic Church revealed that 88% of Vieques residents want the Navy out now, while 4% favor giving it a three- year transition period to leave. Only 7% favor the Navy's remaining and using live bombs.

Given the climate, Navy officials would prefer deferring the referendum as long as possible. But Sila Calderon, head of the opposition Popular Democratic Party and a candidate for governor in the November elections, has called for the vote as soon as possible, which could be as early as Aug. 1.

Meanwhile, the Clinton-Rossello agreement has yet to get the approval of congressional Republicans, furious that the President has made any concessions to Puerto Rico. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has suggested that the federal government buy the rest of Vieques and remove its 9,400 residents so the Navy can use the entire island for live bombing.

Without Congress, Clinton can do very little about Vieques because the Constitution delegates all powers concerning the Navy, including disposition of naval properties, to Washington lawmakers.

Clinton's agreement allowing the Navy to set the referendum date, White House advisers say, was part of his compromise with Navy officials to get them to go along with any phasing-out plan.

The Vieques crisis, begun when two bombs dropped off-target by a Navy plane in April 1999 killed a civilian security guard, has made clear to many Puerto Ricans how little Congress cares about or responds to the pleas of the island's 3.8 million U.S. citizens.

"Until there's a toothache, no one in Congress goes to the dentist," said Marco Rigau, former member of the Puerto Rican Senate. "Vieques is now a big toothache."

And that toothache will get even bigger.

The next Navy maneuvers are scheduled for August, when the Truman carrier group is scheduled for its first round of bombing practice.

So far, Navy brass have been able to handle the few hundred protesters who have managed to get onto the range. But if those hundreds turn into thousands in August, and if major U.S. political leaders and celebrities begin to get arrested on Vieques, then Congress and the Navy will be forced to face reality.

Maybe then they will get the message - the message that Puerto Rico is tired of being treated like a U.S. possession. It is an island full of humans, not property. And those humans demand that their views be heard.

If the Navy does not want to see another Panama, it will schedule the Vieques referendum for August, find another practice range right away and leave quietly.

BECAUSE THE ROAD to resolving Puerto Rican status , right now, runs right through Vieques.

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