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Vieques Dispute Continues...



by Mary Gonzalez Nieves
September 3, 1999

Copyright © 1999 EFE News Services Inc.; Source: World Reporter (TM)



by Dale Eisman, Staff Writer
September 4, 1999


Washington, Sep 3 (EFE).- A group of U.S. Hispanic, religious and civil rights organizations sent President Bill Clinton a letter Friday calling for a permanent halt to naval exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques .

In their letter, the organizations call for a transition plan that provides for the withdrawal of military forces, the clearing of bombs from practice ranges and the return of lands to residents of the island municipality.

The groups also call for an investigation to determine whether the high incidence of cancer among Vieques residents is a result of the practice bombings the Navy has carried out over several decades.

The letter is signed by Rick Dovalina, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC); Rev. Jesse Jackson, president of the Rainbow Coalition, and Juan Figueroa, president of the Puerto Rican Education and Defense Fund.

Other signers include National Council of La Raza (NCLR) President Raul Izaguirre, National Association of Latin American Elected Officials (NALEO) Executive Director Arturo Vargas and Church World Service Executive Director Rodney Page.

The groups' petition comes as a special Pentagon committee prepares to send Defense Secretary William Cohen a report on the future of Navy exercises in Vieques, off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico .

Navy maneuvers on Vieques have been suspended since last April 19 when several bombs landed "by mistake" on a naval observation post, killing Puerto Rican security guard David Sanes.

Since then, the governor of Puerto Rico has received wide support in his call for an end to military operations on Vieques, a 9,000-resident island municipality.

According to the Baltimore Sun, the Pentagon committee will advise Cohen to continue Navy operations for five more years.

Nevertheless, the newspaper adds, it will recommend reducing bombings, instituting measures to protect the environment and a program to foster the island's economic development.

Navy officials have said they are willing to meet all those conditions in exchange for being allowed to continue to operate on the island.

The committee may be putting the Navy on probation rather than handing it walking papers, the Sun suggests.

The final decision will be in President Clinton's hands.

The Navy took its case for continued use of a bombing and artillery range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques to the White House on Friday, briefing presidential aides on why the service believes the facilities should be retained over the opposition of Puerto Rican leaders and residents.

A source familiar with the discussion said Navy Secretary Richard Danzig and a delegation including Vice Adm. Robert J. Natter, the Navy's director of plans and policy, cast the training provided on Vieques as critical to the Navy's ability to prepare forces for overseas deployments.

The group's audience included White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, an indication of how seriously the administration views the dispute, and other senior officials. In addition to military readiness, the talks touched on the political considerations, the source said; Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello and other islanders are demanding the Navy vacate the island.

Long-simmering disputes between the Navy and Vieques residents boiled over in April, when a local resident employed by the Navy as a security guard on the perimeter of the bombing range was killed by a stray bomb.

The accident occurred miles from any populated area and was the first civilian casualty in memory associated with the range, but it ignited continuing protests, including a camp-in by demonstrators who now occupy part of the 900-acre range. The protesters have vowed to stay put until the Navy agrees to pull out; Navy use of the range has been suspended since the accident.

The Puerto Ricans contend that Navy bombing and shelling on Vieques has crippled the island's tourism and fishing industries, stifled other economic development and perhaps contributed to unusually high cancer rates among Vieques' 9,100 residents.

The service says it's willing to provide economic aid to the island, though the total has not been publicly released, but officials insist that there is no credible evidence to link Navy activities on Vieques to cancer among residents.

The issue has implications far beyond Vieques, a 33,000-acre island just a few miles east of the main island of Puerto Rico.

Gov. Rossello is a major fund-raiser for Vice President Al Gore's presidential quest. And Latino leaders in New York are suggesting that the outcome of the dispute could be crucial to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's chances of securing the Latino vote in her expected Senate race next year.

Congressional Republicans also are showing increased interest in the dispute. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., has reportedly planned a Sept. 21 hearing on the Justice Department's refusal to prosecute protesters who the Navy says have removed unexploded shells from the range.

An Inhofe spokesman insisted Friday that there's been no decision to convene a hearing but released a letter from Inhofe to Attorney General Janet Reno in which the senator called the department's position "irresponsible and reprehensible."

"It appears that American lives are being placed at risk simply to court the popular opinion and votes of those who support the protesters," Inhofe added.

The White House is awaiting the report of a task force that the administration created in June to explore Navy activities on the island.

The Navy has offered to limit its bombing and shelling on Vieques, but insists that the "live fire" training provided there can't be duplicated anywhere in the Atlantic.

The island has several beaches where Marines can practice amphibious landings as shells fly overhead and land on the range nearby.

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