Puerto Rico a threat to big guns

Navy firing-range feud could hit campaigns of Gore, first lady

September 01, 1999|By Tom Bowman and Jonathan Weisman | Tom Bowman and Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- On tiny Vieques Island off Puerto Rico, a brewing battle is pitting the mighty U.S. Navy against impoverished residents -- with reverberations that could affect the political futures of none other than Vice President Al Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

For 58 years, Vieques served as the Navy's exclusive East Coast firing range -- until it was shut down and occupied by protesters in April, after an errant bomb from a Marine Corps jet killed a civilian Puerto Rican guard and wounded four others.

Now, the battle has grown into a troublesome quandary for the Clinton administration, forcing it to choose between the politically powerful Latino vote and the military's training demands.

Fed up with feeling like second-class citizens, Puerto Ricans say the Navy has abrogated its agreements with the Puerto Rican government, trashed Vieques' environment, polluted its waters and endangered its 9,311 citizens.

The Pentagon's top brass counter that the live-fire range is vital to maintaining its military skills, that the Atlantic Fleet simply cannot train without it and that Vieques must reopen.

Indeed, when the destroyer USS John Hancock steams out of Norfolk, Va., this month for the Persian Gulf, officials say, its crew, unable to train at Vieques, will not be qualified to shoot its 5-inch guns, even though a destroyer is supposed to provide coastal fire if a conflict erupts.

"The fact today is, I've got a real problem, right now," Vice Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, told a presidential panel this summer.

The panel is expected next week to recommend that the Navy pull out of Vieques in about five years. Until then, the panel will suggest, the Navy must curtail its bombing, do more to comply with environmental regulations and aid the island's economic development.

But those recommendations will not likely be the last word. Within the coming weeks, President Clinton will have to make a decision that will almost certainly enrage one side or the other.

"It's going to make for a very interesting fall," said a senior White House official.

The political overtones have been anything but subtle, both for Gore's presidential campaign and the all-but-declared Senate candidacy of Hillary Clinton. There are two million Puerto Ricans in New York City, and Mrs. Clinton's expected rival, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, carried 43 percent of their vote in his 1997 re-election. Moreover, Latino leaders have vowed to make Vieques an issue with Hispanic voters nationwide in the 2000 campaigns.

The governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Rossello, is a national co-chairman of the Gore campaign and a top Gore fund-raiser. He says the vice president assured him that he would urge Clinton to search for an alternative site.

White House seeks balance

A broad coalition of Latino organizations met yesterday with Maria Echaveste, a deputy White House chief of staff.

"There are enough players in the [United] States with enough organizational infrastructure to make this a national issue, and that is the intent," said Juan Figueroa, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. "I can tell you that Al Gore is going to pay attention."

One source deeply involved in the issue said: "This is a very politically charged climate." Another offered: "We know what is driving this."

But the administration faces heavy pressure from the other side, too. This week, the Navy is pressing White House aides privately and appealing for public support.

White House officials were incensed by an upcoming op-ed piece for the New York Times written by Adm. Jay Johnson, the chief of naval operations, and Gen. Jim Jones, the Marine Commandant, arguing that the Vieques range remain open, according to congressional and Pentagon sources.

All the top admirals and generals whose commands touch the Atlantic have backed the Vieques range in private letters to Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

For their part, Puerto Ricans and their allies are planning a Sept. 11 rally in New York City that is expected to draw tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans living on the mainland.

Timetable unsupported

Meanwhile, the four-member presidential panel that was created by Clinton in June to make recommendations on Vieques is putting the finishing touches on a report, scheduled to be sent to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen next week, that is expected to make both sides grumble.

But the Puerto Ricans say the expected five-year timetable is not good enough, and some Pentagon officials say they expect the Clinton administration to reduce that withdrawal period.

"We insist that the Navy release its stranglehold on Vieques and that all property in Vieques be returned to the government of Puerto Rico and/or the municipality of Vieques," Carlos A. Romero-Barcelo, Puerto Rico's nonvoting House delegate, told the presidential panel.

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