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No Accord on Island Bombing as Administration and Puerto Rico Point Fingers

by Elizabeth Becker

December 11, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE NEW YORK TIMES CO. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON, Dec. 10 -- Hopes for settling the dispute over bombing exercises on the island of Vieques appeared to dwindle today, as senior administration officials and the governor of Puerto Rico differed over whether they had actually agreed on the future of a bombing range there and, if so, what exactly they had agreed to.

White House and Pentagon officials complained that the governor had reneged on a promise to endorse President Clinton's proposals, while the governor said the president had announced a plan that did not reflect the actual negotiations with Puerto Rican officials.

Mr. Clinton's compromise plan, recommended by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, rejected an earlier Navy recommendation to continue live-fire exercises on Vieques and accepted a Puerto Rican demand to halt the use of explosives.

The plan also delayed several major decisions on the Navy's future role in Vieques while the Navy and the Puerto Rican governor discussed whether the military could resume exercises in March with ordnance containing no explosives.

As part of the package, the Navy offered the island $40 million in economic revival money to show that it understands it must ''repair relations'' with the people of Vieques.

But just hours after the deal was announced last week by senior military and civilian Navy Department officials, Gov. Pedro J. Rossello publicly rejected the offer.

Stunned, the Pentagon has now postponed several aspects of the proposal and is discussing moves that could have a serious economic impact on Puerto Rico.

''The White House was surprised by the rejection,'' a senior administration official said. ''We had been led to believe that the governor would endorse this.''

Mr. Cohen said he had crafted the compromise with the Navy and Marines in recent weeks and was working under the assumption that the White House had negotiated an agreement with Governor Rossello.

''The White House told us they believed the governor would accept this,'' Mr. Cohen said in an interview. ''So, yes, I was surprised when the governor did not support the agreement.''

Through a spokesman, Governor Rossello said that Mr. Cohen misunderstood what had happened.

''It was the other way around,'' said Alfonso Aguilar, the governor's spokesman. ''The president's plan did not reflect what the governor had agreed to. We were surprised and disappointed.''

Only President Clinton and several of his senior aides spoke directly to Governor Rossello. Mr. Clinton stepped into the negotiations on Veteran's Day and spoke to the governor at least three times before the proposal was announced last week.

Governor Rossello believed that the president had agreed that the plan would include legally binding commitments that the bombing on the island would end and the Navy would leave, his spokesman said.

Several defense officials said today that they believed the confusion was the fault of politics.

The Vieques issue has brought a rare unity among the people of Puerto Rico, who in turn have put it on the national political agenda. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is running for senator from New York State, which has a large Puerto Rican population, has sided with Puerto Rico against the Navy. So has Vice President Al Gore, whose presidential campaign co-chairman in Puerto Rico is Governor Rossello.

But the White House said it, too, was chagrined.

''None of us was thrilled about where we ended up on Friday,'' the senior administration official said.

Governor Rossello will negotiate only with the president and his senior aides in discussions on Vieques, and not with the Navy, his spokesman said today, adding that the governor expected the president to reconsider the plan.

''We are only dealing with the policy makers,'' Mr. Aguilar said. ''The Navy should understand its role in these things. The commander in chief is the policy maker, and the Navy takes orders from President Clinton.''

The Navy has postponed sending Rear Adm. Kevin Green to San Juan as the special representative for Vieques, even though the admiral's wife had already arrived there.

And the senior administration official said today that without a ''very good sense of whether these talks will go forward in the next several weeks,'' the military would reconsider its entire relationship with Puerto Rico.

The territory is also home to Roosevelt Roads, one of the Navy's largest bases and one of Puerto Rico's largest employers.

At the same time, Pentagon officials, the White House and the governor said they wanted to continue looking for some way to bring the sides together to resume discussions.

The negotiations are complicated by the presence of hundreds of demonstrators camping on the Vieques firing range who refuse to leave for fear that the Navy will return. The range has been closed since a civilian Puerto Rican guard was killed after Marine jets dropped bombs that unintentionally hit an observation tower last spring.

That death galvanized Puerto Rican complaints against the Navy's use of the 900-acre range on Vieques. The small island has high unemployment; its residents have suffered health problems, including a high incidence of cancer, and the island's coral reef and wildlife have been threatened by the bombing.

For his part, Mr. Cohen said last week's proposal was the best the Pentagon could offer. The loss of Vieques would mean the end of all coordinated live-fire exercises on the east coast for the Navy.

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