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Clinton's Vieques Offer May Not Go Far Enough

by Juan Gonzalez

November 17, 1999
Copyright © 1999 DAILY NEWS, L.P. All Rights Reserved.

Secretary of Defense William Cohen will recommend to President Clinton this week that the Navy end more than 50 years of live-fire bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques and that Navy installations there be dismantled within five years.

Cohen will urge, however, that reduced military maneuvers continue as scheduled during the phaseout period including maneuvers planned by the carrier Eisenhower and its battle group for early December, with troops using inert munitions instead, sources in Congress and the Clinton administration said yesterday.

The proposal, which Clinton is expected to approve, signals a major concession by the Pentagon to the people of Puerto Rico. Until now, the Navy has insisted live-fire exercises on Vieques were essential to national security.

But Cohen's plan does not meet the demands of Puerto Rico's government for an immediate end to all Navy bombing and maneuvers, and it may not end the thorny seven-month standoff between Washington and Puerto Rico.

Protesters who have occupied the range since a Puerto Rican security guard was killed by an errant Navy bomb in April enjoy overwhelming support among Puerto Rico 's 3.8 million people. The protesters and the 9,300 inhabitants of Vieques say they will accept no resumption of shelling, live or inert, and are preparing to engage in civil disobedience.

Clinton met with Cohen and top Pentagon brass last week on the Vieques issue. He spoke several times by telephone this week with Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello, trying to find a compromise. The President is even considering a direct televised speech to Puerto Rico to explain his decision to resume limited maneuvers, White House sources said.

But Rossello and most other Puerto Rican politicians, both on the island and in this country, have refused to endorse any compromise that includes resumption of shelling. The inert bombs, they note, would include concrete shells.

Given the Navy's history of breaking past accords on Vieques, few leaders are willing to risk their political careers defending the compromise.

To many in Congress, Puerto Ricans seem inexplicably hardheaded about Vieques. Compromise, after all, is the name of the game in Washington.

But Vieques has become more than just a minor dispute over a naval facility. It has come to symbolize for many Puerto Ricans all those decades of neglect and disdain by Washington lawmakers, all those years when Puerto Rico was just some easily dismissed "territorial possession."

The Vieques issue has united Puerto Ricans like never before. At long last, Washington is paying attention.

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