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Clinton Unveils Vieques Plan, Calls for Vote

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 3, 2000 – The people of Vieques, Puerto Rico, will decide the fate of Navy and Marine Corps training on their island, President Clinton announced Feb. 1 in a videotaped address to the people of Puerto Rico.

Clinton has directed a referendum be held so the island's 9,300 residents can choose between two alternatives. They can vote to end all training and have the Navy leave the island by May 1, 2003. Or they can vote to have the Navy continue training on Vieques on terms that would be presented at least three months before the vote.

Clinton's order calls for the Navy to request a referendum date that falls within a period spanning 270 days before or after May 1, 2001.

The president directed the Office of Management and Budget to request $40 million to support community development on the island regardless of which way the vote goes, but the islanders would receive another $50 million in assistance if they choose to allow training to continue. The economic aid is in recognition of the burden the training places on the community, Clinton said.

The Atlantic Fleet has trained at Vieques since 1941. Controversy erupted in Puerto Rico in April after Marine Corps jets accidentally dropped two 500-pound bombs on a range observation tower, killing one person and injuring four others. Protesters occupied the training site, and Puerto Rico's governor called for an immediate halt to live-fire training.

Navy officials have sought to continue training at Vieques, They've labeled the site "the crown jewel training experience," vital to maintaining readiness.

Clinton expressed his deep regret over the death of range guard David Sane and said he understands why people would want to end the training. "At the same time, as commander in chief, I must do all I can to ensure that our service men and women get the very best training possible," he said.

Right now, no alternative sites exist that provide the same combined training opportunities, Clinton explained. He called on Puerto Ricans to help make this solution work. Noting that many Puerto Ricans have served with distinction in the U.S. armed forces, he said, "I know you understand. You have never turned your back on your duty to share in the defense of our country."

He acknowledged that for many residents the accident "exacerbated old wounds" about the effect the training was having on quality of life.

"Mistrust has been building for decades. As a Defense Department panel found, we have not always been good neighbors on Vieques," he said. "But I believe this plan will help resolve the impasse over Vieques in the fairest way possible, because it gives the people most affected by the decision the ability to choose for themselves what the future of their island will be."

Clinton thanked Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello and other local government officials for their efforts to resolve the impasse. "Puerto Ricans and the people of Vieques have contributed greatly to our nation's security. I hope all of us can work together with our Congress and with the government and governor of Puerto Rico to implement this plan," the president said.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen issued a Jan. 31 statement welcoming "the progress made in establishing a framework to move past the tragic accident of last April and focus squarely on the future." He said White House, DoD and Navy officials have worked with the government of Puerto Rico since early December to reconcile the vital need for training with the legitimate concerns of the people of Vieques.

Cohen said the president's decision will enable the Navy and Marine Corps to resume training necessary to remain strong and ready, as well as providing economic benefits for the islanders. "Most importantly," Cohen said, "this clears a path for a fair, objective referendum through which the people of Vieques can chart the future and how the Navy fits within that vision."

Until the vote is taken, Clinton ruled training will resume on Vieques, but there will be no live-fire training. Navy and Marine Corps training will be limited to nonexplosive ordnance.

"I am also directing the Navy and Marine Corps to cut in half the amount of time they will spend training," he said. "In 1998, our troops trained for 182 days on Vieques; this year they will be authorized for 90 days.

Clinton also announced plans to take steps to meet the health, safety, environmental and economic concerns of Vieques residents. Once training resumes and remains continuously available pending the vote, the president directed the Office of Management and Budget to request $40 million from Congress to fund the following projects:

  • A Public Health Service study to review health concerns raised by the islanders.
  • The transfer of 110 acres of Navy property to extend the runway at the Vieques Municipal Airport to accommodate larger passenger aircraft and for the Navy to provide training and supplemental equipment to bolster the airport fire, safety and resource capability.
  • Development of a new commercial ferry pier and terminal.
  • Improvement of major cross-island roads and bridges.
  • Creation of an artificial reef and fish aggregation program. Until the new fishing grounds are operational, registered commercial Vieques fishermen will be paid for each day they are unable to use existing waters because the Navy is training. The amount they receive would be determined by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Services.
  • Environmental programs to preserve the Puerto Mosquito Vieques bio-luminescent bay, maintain the ecosystem and conservation zones and implement wildlife management plans.
  • An apprenticeship/training program for small-scale civic construction projects.
  • An economic development office for promoting Vieques and attracting jobs to the island.
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