Para ver este documento en español, oprima aquí.


Presidential Panel Backs Firing Exercises in Vieques

by Elizabeth Becker

October 19, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON -- A Presidential panel recommended Monday that the United States military be allowed to resume live firing exercises on Navy property in Puerto Rico but that the range be shut down in five years, despite demands from the territory's governor that it be closed immediately and all bombing halted.

Since April, when a Marine pilot killed a Puerto Rican guard in a bombing accident on the range, Puerto Rican protesters have occupied it and prevented any target practice while the territory's politicians have argued that the range was an unacceptable threat to the island's livelihood and environment. The Navy has suspended all bombing on the range, which is on the island of Vieques, pending a final decision.

Anticipating criticism of Monday's recommendation, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen said in a written statement that Navy and Puerto Rican officials should continue searching for a compromise.

"It's clear from the panel's report there are serious concerns among the residents of Vieques which need and deserve the careful attention of the Navy and the Department of Defense," Cohen said in the statement issued while he was traveling in the Middle East.

Carlos Ventura, president of the Fishermen's Association of Southern Vieques, which has set up a protest camp on the range, told The Associated Press: "For us, it is unacceptable that the Navy start exercises again. We are going to stay there and continue our civil disobedience."

The panel's recommendation was immediately criticized by Hillary Rodham Clinton, a presumed candidate for senator from New York. She endorsed the position of most Puerto Rican politicians in New York, who have promised to make the closing of Vieques an issue in next year's Presidential and Senate elections.

"There should be an immediate and permanent end to the bombing," Mrs. Clinton said Monday. "The use of live fire on the island has put the people of Vieques at risk, degraded the environment and hampered economic development."

Last month Mrs. Clinton angered several Hispanic leaders in New York when she urged the President to withdraw his offer of clemency to members of a Puerto Rican terrorist organization. And in Monday's move, she was more in step with the Democratic Party establishment.

In a private conversation over the weekend, Vice President Al Gore told State Senator Olga Mendez, a Democrat from Manhattan, that he also favored shutting down the range, said an official with Gore's Presidential campaign. But a spokesman for Gore would say only that the Vice President was working for "a resolution to this important issue."

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said Monday that he, too, favored "the immediate cessation of all military activity on the island."

The Defense Department says that despite months of searching, it has found no replacement for the range, which the Secretary of the Navy has called "the only suitable training site."

"If the United States is to maintain military forces, it owes its sailors, marines, soldiers and airmen the best possible training," the Navy Secretary, Richard Danzig, said Monday.

Secretary Danzig asked Congress to endorse the findings of the four-member panel, which was headed by Francis Rush, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for force management policy. After a Congressional recommendation on the range, President Clinton will make a final decision.

The United States Government owns nearly two-thirds of the 33,000-acre island of Vieques. Because the island is far from the major commercial shipping and air routes, the Navy and Marines have mounted exercises with live ammunition for amphibious assaults, aerial bombing and aircraft carrier-based attacks.

Pentagon officials said that as the only range for such exercises on the East Coast, Vieques had been critical for training for every war since World War II.

In June President Clinton appointed the panel to resolve the competing demands of the American military and the Puerto Rican government.

But the President tipped his own hand in a private letter to his national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, written on July 26, a White House official said. In it, the official said, the President said he agreed with Ruben Berrios-Martinez, a Puerto Rican friend of the President, who said that Vieques was being treated like "a colonial commonwealth."

"This is wrong," the President wrote. "I think they don't want us there. That's the main point. The Navy can find a way to work around it."

In its unanimous recommendation, the panel said it recognized the need to hold the training but said the military should substantially reduce the number of days it holds live-fire operations and cut back by half the amount of ammunition used.

Lee H. Hamilton, head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was a member of the panel, along with a retired Marine Corps general, Richard Neal, and a retired Navy vice admiral, Diego Hernandez, a former commander of the Navy's Third Fleet.

In nearly two months of testimony and travel to Puerto Rico, said Hamilton, a former Democratic Representative from Indiana, the panel came to the conclusion that "the Puerto Rican community is very incensed by this and they all want it stopped immediately."

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback