December 10, 1999
President Clinton has ordered a permanent end to the use of "live fire" ammunition in military training exercises on the Puerto Rico island of Vieques.
Critics, however, say the president's directive did not go far enough, and they still want the Navy and Marines to shut down the training facility for good.
"I am extremely disappointed. 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," Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello told reporters at a press conference Friday in San Juan.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this fall, Rossello insisted that Puerto Ricans would settle for nothing less than an immediate end to all training operations in Vieques.
Ruben Berrios, a Puerto Rican legislator and one of dozens of protesters camped out on a Vieques beach littered with unexploded munitions, labeled the President's plan "disgraceful."
"It is typical of the President's actions," Berrios told El Nuevo Dia, a San Juan, Puerto Rico newspaper. "He has to reevaluate and reconsider because of the coming (U.S.) elections."
About one-third of the Vieques island has been used as a combat training facility for nearly 60 years. But Navy and Marine bombing exercises there were halted after a civilian base employee named David Sanes Rodriguez was accidentally killed in April.
Sanes' death and lingering disgruntlement over the military's actions in Vieques sparked protests and raised tensions between the U.S. government and Puerto Rican officials and activists.
Under President Clinton's plan, Navy and Marine personnel will train this month at locations along the East Coast and in Scotland, instead of Vieques, according to a statement released by the White House. However, Navy officials say they hope to return to the tiny island next spring.
Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig told the New York Times that the alternative arrangements "will not provide training as good as that obtainable in Vieques."
In addition to specifying that the Navy and Marines no longer can use live ammunition when it trains in Vieques, Clinton has agreed to end all operations there in five years. The plan also earmarks $40 million for economic development in Vieques.
Puerto Rico officials have long complained that the Defense Department failed to follow through on earlier promises to repair some of the economic and environmental damage caused by the decades of bombardment. The island's tourism industry has been all but obliterated.
Many of the island's 9,300 residents also complain of health problems they suspect might be linked to pollution caused by the military.
At a news conference Friday, Navy Adm. Jay L. Johnson, suggested that a negotiated settlement to the U.S.-Puerto Rico stalemate is still possible."(Vieques) is the crown jewel training experience for us. We don't want to lose it, and we're willing to work to keep it."
Protests to continue
Rossello and others in Puerto Rico insist that's not going to happen. The governor recently rejected the idea that the Navy and Marines be allowed to use so-called dummy (non-exploding) ammunition when it trains on Vieques.
In the wake of the Pre-sident's announcement, critics noted that Navy officials have been insisting for months that it could not do without the training facility at Vieques. Some in Congress have even suggested that the lives of U.S. military personnel would be endangered if they could not train in Vieques.
Alfonso Aguilar, press spokesman for Rossello, told the Times that Clinton`s new plan proves "they have other places to do that type of training."
Opponents of the Clinton plan, meanwhile, pledged to resist a resumption of the training exercises. Berrios says he has no plans to leave the Vieques beach encampment.
The President's plan also elicited a sharp rebuke from Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill. In a statement, he said, "President Clinton has put forward a plan that not only continues to subject the people of Vieques to grave dangers, but also subverts the will of the people."
Hans S. Perl-Matanzo, a native of Puerto Rico and head of the Global Student Movement for Peace in Vieques Now at Harvard University, said he, too, was disappointed by Clinton's decision.
"The decision is totally unacceptable," Perl-Matanzo said. "It constitutes a military presence on the island for at least five years and that goes against the will of the Puerto Rican people."
Perl-Matanzo drew campus attention to the Vieques cause last month, organizing a rally and circulating a petition signed by more than 200 students and nearly 50 Harvard professors who argued that the bombings threatened the humanitarian and economic interests of the island's residents.
(Reprinted from Politico-The forum for Latino politics, editor James E. Garcia, V3-11, 12/06/99.)