The confrontation that need not be

Vieques: Opponents of Puerto Rico firing range are not satisfied with the provision for ending it.

May 04, 2000

THE VIEQUES problem was solved in January. The Vieques crisis is something else -- real, unnecessary and irrelevant -- brought to a head by steely determination on both sides to have a showdown.

The Jan. 31 agreement between President Clinton and Gov. Pedro J. Rossello of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico provides for a referendum of the 9,300 residents of Vieques on whether the eastern half of the small island may remain in use as a firing range for the U.S. Navy.

There is an aid incentive to vote yes, but a likelihood the majority will vote no. If so, the Navy must clean up its range and end training by May 2003. In the meantime, the Navy may use the range for exercises -- as it has since 1940 -- but limited to dummy ammunition.

In other words, the residents of the island and other Puerto Ricans got what they wanted. And the Navy is on notice to find another range where it may conduct live firing and bombing with amphibious landings, an exercise that unfortunately is altogether necessary in the world in which we live.

The timing is orderly, the principle of democracy is observed and the issue is settled. Demonstrators who continued to squat on the firing range since Jan. 31 have had no good reason for doing so. This is civil disobedience for its own sake, in search of a cause.

But if the Navy may be justified in wanting them removed, it has pushed a risky confrontation for small gain. What the demonstrators have obstructed is a dummy run, not live fire. The removal operation, however legitimate, is not prudent.

Reportedly, the FBI argued against removal and arrest, having earned opprobrium for operations that went terribly wrong elsewhere. But the Pentagon insisted on winning. President Clinton and Governor Rossello agreed.

Perhaps the United States should long ago have bought-out the small community living next to military facilities on the small island between Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It did not.

Last January, the Clinton administration gave in on the main question. Some demonstrators, not content with winning, refuse to take yes for an answer.

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