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Puerto Rico Rejects President's Plan For Navy Use Of Island

by Chris Hawley

December 4, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES , Puerto Rico (AP) - Hopes for a deal ending the crisis over the U.S. Navy's use of the island of Vieques collapsed when Puerto Rican leaders, in a show of rare unity, rejected a compromise offered by President Clinton.

Clinton's long-awaited decision Friday appeared to constitute a significant concession to Puerto Rico 's demands. Clinton agreed to immediately end live bombings - which had been the root of the crisis - and phase out all operations on the outlying, populated island within five years.

But Clinton insisted that some training - and the use of at least inert bombs - was essential and would resume next spring.

"I understand the long-standing concerns of residents of the island," Clinton said in the statement. But he added: "I cannot send our servicemen and women into harm's way if they have not been adequately trained."

Emphasizing the importance of the island to military readiness, the Clinton administration dangled a $40 million incentive to try to persuade Vieques ' 9,000 residents, who are U.S. citizens, to let the training continue.

A somber group of Puerto Rican leaders headed by Gov. Pedro Rossello - a staunch Clinton ally and supporter of U.S. statehood for the Spanish-speaking territory - gathered in San Juan to reject the compromise package. Puerto Rican leaders have demanded a cessation of all training and the immediate departure of the Navy from Vieques .

Rossello went so far as to suggest that Clinton had led him astray - causing his office to issue a series of unduly optimistic assessments earlier in the day.

"Personally I feel deceived with the position that's been taken because it doesn't faithfully reflect what we have been discussing with the president," Rossello said.

The Navy operations have been a target of occasional protests and legal actions since the 1960s, but the controversy erupted into a crisis after a civilian security guard was killed by stray bombs on the range last April.

The Navy then suspended training on Vieques but has sought a way to resume it. Navy Secretary Richard Danzig reiterated Friday that the island, a key training ground for the ships and aircraft of the Navy's Atlantic Fleet since World War II, offers "the most rigorous, realistic training" facility available.

It was not clear what would happen now to the several dozen protesters - most of them independence activists - who have for seven months occupied the Navy range.

Because Clinton delayed the resumption of the exercises for months - and sent the USS Eisenhower battle group, which had been headed here, to train off the U.S. mainland instead - all sides appeared to have bought some time.

Ruben Berrios, the independence party leader and front-man for the Vieques protesters, called Clinton's offer a considerable - if insufficient - step forward and called on all island leaders to join him at his beach camp to press for their full demands.

"If we maintain the original consensus and civil disobedience we can defeat the Navy," he told the AP.

Rossello also won support Friday from an array of island leaders who assembled at his mansion, including opposition leader and San Juan Mayor Sila Calderon, who opposes statehood for Puerto Rico and is running for governor in 2000.

"This unity, outside party lines, (gives us) the power for achieving what we want to achieve," Calderon said.

"We will see better times," said a somber San Juan Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves, the island's leading religious figure. "With love we will achieve this noble goal."

Polls have suggested most Puerto Ricans back the hard line on Vieques .

However, in recent days some people here have raised concerns about the damage that the apparent inflexibility could cause to Puerto Rico 's relationship with the United States - provider of citizenship, passports, and billions of dollars a year in federal transfers.

These issues were of little concern at the protest camps in Vieques .

Organizers handed out new flares, whistles, cellular phones and high-powered spotlights to volunteers standing guard in one-hour shifts - prepared, as has been the case all week, for possible arrests.

"The real triumph will come when we get the full return of the land, the cleanup of the pollution, and the compensation of this people that has suffered so much," said Ismael Guadelupe, a protest leader on the bombing range.

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