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Hispanics Blast Clinton As Climax Of Island Dispute Draws Near

December 1, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico -- A group of Hispanic Democrats on Tuesday -- assuming that President Clinton plans to allow bombing to resume on the target range here -- warned there would be strong consequences.

The announcement of Clinton's decision was expected today or Thursday, but politicians on the mainland and some in Puerto Rico were trusting their sources and acting as if the decision were made. Protesters camped on the target range dug in their heels as word spread that the impending decision would have the U.S. Navy leave Vieques in three years but would allow bombing on a reduced basis in the interim.

The 20 Democrats warned that Clinton's anticipated move would damage relations with Puerto Ricans and implied it could threaten Hillary Clinton's Senate aspirations.

"The measures you propose to implement are unacceptable," the lawmakers said in a letter. "Your anticipated action will change forever the way your administration is viewed by Puerto Ricans throughout the United States, with potential ramifications to your administration and others who might be seeking to carry on your policies and programs."

The letter, signed by Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and others, expresses "absolute rejection" of the plan.

"It is completely intolerable to bomb American citizens on American territory," they wrote.

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials indicated that limited target practice may resume on Vieques soon, as a battle group prepares to head for the Persian Gulf.

Navy Rear Adm. Craig Quigley stopped short of saying an agreement had been reached, but he told reporters on Tuesday that some naval forces "may utilize portions of the Puerto Rican operating area, depending upon the outcome of current discussions."

Sources in Washington indicated that warships would fire non-explosive rounds at the range.

While visiting some of the nine protesters' campsites on the range, Puerto Rico Rep. Anibal Acevedo Vila, the opposition Popular Democratic Party's candidate for resident commissioner, said he hoped the letter from New York would exert pressure.

"I'm glad they tell the president that he shouldn't just be talking to the governor," Acevedo Vila said. "He should be talking to the people of Vieques too."

Puerto Rico, supported by many stateside, has been in a battle with Washington since April 19 to get the U.S. Navy to stop bombing and military-training exercises on the three quarters of the 52-square-mile island of Vieques it has owned since 1941. Puerto Rico wants the land cleaned up and returned. A fatal accident in which a wayward bomb killed security guard David Sanes Rodriguez during target practice spurred a consensus across political lines.

However, with the official announcement near, cracks in that consensus are beginning to surface. After returning from a week-long vacation in the United States during which he talked with Clinton almost daily, Gov. Pedro Rossello was deliberately vague about whether he still upholds the island government's public policy.

Rossello has repeatedly told Congress and the White House that Puerto Rico wants no more bombs to fall on Vieques. On Monday, he said the goal is for bombing to stop, but he hedged on whether that meant an agreement to stop at some future date would be acceptable.

On Tuesday, Rossello's people offered some hints. His successor in the New Progressive Party, gubernatorial candidate Carlos Pesquera, said a proposal of the type expected in Clinton's announcement could benefit Puerto Rico. He asked people not to jump to conclusions or to treat the possibility of a compromise so harshly.

"We have to evaluate it, analyze it and show we are mature enough to receive it in an objective manner," Pesquera said.

Those committed to the island's original stance, particularly those using themselves as human shields on Vieques, want no part of the apparent new position and are prepared for federal authorities to move in and arrest them. Hundreds gathered for a vigil Tuesday night in front of the gates to the restricted Navy grounds of Camp Garcia.

"There are people who think five more years, three more years is nothing. For us, one more minute is too much," said Carlos "El Prieto" Ventura, president of the Fishermen's Association of Southern Vieques. "We are just too tired of this, and that's why we're not going to allow it."

An emotional Vieques Mayor Manuela Santiago counseled calm, but she made it clear that the anticipated decision would not be favorable to her island municipality.

"Even though there are people who say we haven't achieved anything, we have achieved a lot when you take into consideration that the Navy is a tough opponent," Santiago said.

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