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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Senate Bill Proposes Closing Roosevelt Roads - White
House Plans New Vieques Meetings
by Elizabeth Becker
December 16, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE NEW YORK TIMES CO. All Rights Reserved.
WASHINGTON -- The Senate will hold hearings next month on a
bill to close the $3 billion naval station in Puerto Rico, a move
that would clearly hurt the Puerto Rican economy, if the commonwealth
refuses to allow live-fire exercises to resume on the island of
The governor of Puerto Rico today called the legislation a
''petty political move'' that would cause major economic damage
to the commonwealth, his spokesman said. But the bill's sponsor,
Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, said naval operations
in Puerto Rico would not make sense without use of the Vieques
And in a sign of the Clinton administration's concern over
the diminishing prospects for a settlement, John Podesta, the
White House chief of staff, will meet a top official in the administration
of Puerto Rico's governor, Pedro J. Rossello, on Thursday to prepare
for a meeting next week between Governor Rossello and President
Clinton, Puerto Rican officials said. The Clinton administration
declined to answer questions about the base closing proposal or
the upcoming meetings.
Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia and chairman
of the Armed Services Committee, said in an interview today that
it made sense to close the Roosevelt Roads naval station on the
main island of Puerto Rico if the commonwealth refused to allow
training on the smaller island of Vieques.
''We're clearly of the view that if the range is lost, it is
highly likely that we would close Roosevelt Roads,'' Senator Warner
That naval station serves the Navy battle groups and marines
that train in Vieques and open waters around Puerto Rico. Roosevelt
Roads provides $300 million to Puerto Rico 's economy each year
and employs 2,500 civilians and 2,400 military personnel.
Earlier this month, President Clinton ordered a halt to live-fire
military training on Vieques to help resolve an eight-month dispute
between the Navy and Puerto Rico. In April, a Puerto Rican civilian
guard was killed in a bombing accident, leading to political protests
that have united Puerto Rico as no other issue has.
Since then, the Navy and Marine Corps have been prevented for
the first time since 1941 from using the range for exercises they
consider essential training for combat readiness.
Governor Rossello rejected Mr. Clinton's compromise offer,
which included restricting exercises on Vieques to non-explosive,
or inert, ordnances, reducing by half the number of days that
exercises would be held and ending all exercises within five years
unless the local residents agreed to an extension. Mr. Clinton
also offered Vieques a $40 million economic revival package to
demonstrate that the Navy understood it must ''repair relations''
with the people of Vieques.
Angel Morey, Puerto Rico 's secretary of state, will meet with
Mr. Podesta on Thursday to arrange a meeting as early as next
week among the governor, Mr. Clinton, and Secretary of Defense
William S. Cohen, said Alfonso Aguilar, press secretary for the
''Just the fact that the White House is receiving Mr. Morey,
and eventually the governor, shows the president is making a great
effort to look out for the welfare of the people of Vieques,''
Mr. Aguilar said. ''This is a positive first step showing the
president and the White House are still in the dialogue and willing
But, senior administration and military officials said, a settlement
has to be reached in the next several weeks to allow the Navy
to plan for alternatives if the battle groups can no longer train
Even without the pending legislation in the Senate, the Navy
would automatically examine closing Roosevelt Roads station if
Vieques was lost, a senior Naval official said.
''The relationship between Roosevelt Roads and the mission
of Vieques range is very close,'' the official said. ''If we lose
Vieques, it would be cause for a review of the value of keeping
This year the Pentagon failed to persuade Congress to approve
a new round of base closings at installations around the country
that have lost their use in the post-cold-war era but continue
to cost billions of dollars to maintain. Now several senators
are proposing to close Roosevelt Roads if there are no more exercises
''Put yourself in the position of a senator or representative
who closed a military installation,'' Senator Inhofe said. ''Politically,
you can't resist closing down Roosevelt Roads. It's a no-brainer.''
Governor Rossello was not surprised that the Senate is threatening
to close Roosevelt Roads, Mr. Aguilar said, adding, "the
governor has known for some time that this argument would be used
Puerto Rican officials said that Roosevelt Roads was important
even without Vieques and was used in the war against drugs as
well as other military training.
Since this summer, the Navy has been searching for alternatives
to Vieques for training exercises. But military officials say
they have yet to find anything to duplicate the ''unique qualities''
Earlier this month, the Navy and Marine Corps put together
a ''patchwork" of training for the aircraft carrier Eisenhower
and its battle group, including a Marine detachment, which leaves
for its next assignment to the Mediterranean in February without
training at Vieques. Instead they used bases in Florida and North
Carolina for pilots to drop bombs and marines to storm the beach,
as well as temporary naval artillery training on Cape Wrath in