Navy Protest Intensifies
Officials Urge Clinton to Defuse Puerto Rican Showdown
By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
VIEQUES, Puerto Rico, May 3—A coalition of clergy, members of
Congress and New York officials of Puerto Rican descent asked President
Clinton yesterday to call off the threatened arrests of local residents who
took over a naval bombing range after an errant missile killed a civilian last
year, predicting civil unrest if a federal raid occurs.
They want the administration to negotiate a settlement with the dozens
protesters. "To arrest the people would be a terrible mistake, and we
appeal to the president to stop this nonsense. We are peaceful
demonstrators," said Bishop Alvaro Corrado del Rio of the Diocese of
"Arrests are only going to open a wider spectrum of civil disobedience
Vieques and Puerto Rico," he said. "This is unjust and an abuse of the
people of Vieques."
The National Council of Churches sent a letter to the Clinton administration
urging it to back off from its threat of U.S. police action against the
protesters and to immediately cease using the island for military target
But a senior Pentagon official said today that "the decision-making process
[on the raid] is complete but the plan allows a lot of flexibility in execution.
The final call on when to go in will be made on the law enforcement side."
And government sources in Washington said the decision on when to move
the protesters will be made by the FBI SWAT team commander on the
scene in coordination with the bureau's Strategic Information Operations
Command in Washington.
Federal sources have said the raid could happen late this week.
Supporters of the protesters also warned of the potential backlash a
federal raid could have for first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is
running for the Senate in New York, where people of Puerto Rican
descent make up 6 percent of the electorate.
"A small, inhabited island should not be used for target practice," the
lady said in a statement. "I urge the Pentagon to negotiate a peaceful
resolution to this situation." "This will have a lot of political implications,"
said Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez (D-N.Y.).
The president "needs to read my words. I don't need to threaten the
president," she said. "But aren't we being hypocrites by exporting
democracy to Bosnia and Croatia while we don't have democracy in
Once just a ragtag group of protesters little known outside this island
the dissidents, and their cause, drew supporters from as far away as
Chicago and New York to their turf--a dozen illegal seaside camps that
are reachable only by boat. Last week, other Puerto Ricans consecrated
the First Ecumenical Church of Puerto Rico. On the altar of the open-air
wooden structure is a poster that reads, "No More Bombing Vieques" in
English and Spanish.
"The people of Vieques have been extra patient and generous with the
Navy for 60 years," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who joined the
protesters Tuesday. "Their petition is for peace, and it's a nonnegotiable
Naval bombing and training exercises came to a halt here a year ago
following the death of civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez. The
incident sparked the smoldering discontent of local residents still resentful
of the federal expropriation in 1941 of the eastern and western ends of the
island to build a bombing range and an ammunition depot. The island's
9,300 residents live between the installations.
Within weeks of the accident, protest camps of multi-colored tents sprang
up on the bombing range, forcing the Navy to cancel training maneuvers. In
an attempt to appease protesters, Clinton and the administration of Gov.
Pedro Rossello agreed to a deal in January that will give Vieques $40
million in exchange for allowing the Navy to conduct exercises with mock
bombs that contain no explosives. In addition, the residents of Vieques will
also vote on a referendum sometime between this August and February
2002 on whether the Navy may resume using live ammunition. If voters say
yes, Vieques will receive an additional $50 million. If they defeat the
proposal, the Navy must clean up its practice range--littered with rusting
targets and live bombs--and stop all training by May 1, 2003.
That agreement only angered the protesters, who increased their numbers
and the illegal beach encampments, leading to the federal ultimatum that
they abandon the range.
Staff writers Roberto Suro and David A. Vise in Washington contributed
to this report.