The Navy, the Island and the Deal

Roger Trilling

I. Heaven and Hell
II. Cancer and Other Worries
III. Ni una bomba más
IV. The Pentagon's Report
V. Negotiations with Clinton: The Pullout
VI. Behind Closed Doors
VII. "Endless Liability"
VIII. As Long As it Takes

V. Negotiations with Clinton: The Pullout

"Rosselló got a signal that Clinton would back him up, and help with a resolution," said the San Juan Star's Maldonado. "He wouldn't have gone up against the Armed Services Committee without it."

Part of Rosselló's mystique was his ability to predict favors from the White House, and this seemed a propitious time. Hillary was mounting her Senate campaign in a state with one of the highest proportions of Puerto Rican voters in the country. Rosselló was co-chair of Puerto Rico's drive for Gore. Both Gore and the President's wife had come out in favor of the viequenses.

Ten weeks after Rosselló's Congressional testimony, talks resumed between the Navy and Puerto Rico. Rosselló's emissary and Secretary of State Angel Morey asserted that there could be no further discussion of resumed bombing. The only questions he would consider were timetables for the Navy's clean-up of the lands, their return to the people, and the Navy's departure.

It was a hardball opener, but the realities of Navy schedules were ticking. Those involved knew that in early December, the Navy's Second-Fleet Eisenhower carrier group would steam out of Norfolk bay for its final phase of training on Vieques, before deploying to the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.

A few days earlier, Senator Warner introduced a resolution calling on Clinton to review the combat-readiness of the carrier group. As Commander-in-Chief of America's armed services, Clinton was responsible for the well-being of every sailor and airman in the fleet, and the month before he had pledged that no troops would be deployed unless they were "at a satisfactory level of combat readiness."

But it is the Navy that determines levels of preparedness. And Second Fleet commanders warned that without live-fire training, the Eisenhower group would only be awarded a C-3 rating, and "we do not deploy units at C-3 readiness levels."

On one hand, Congress was threatening to hold Clinton responsible for sending unprepared troops into active duty. On the other hand, Gore and Hillary were part of a growing array of international, Latino, and Democratic interests lining up behind Rosselló, Clinton's long-time political ally.

On November 26, 1999, days before the carrier group was to debark, Clinton announced that he was optimistic about a deal. It was hoped that in return for a firm date for the Navy's departure, Rosselló would agree to allow inert shells. The Navy objected.

"Anything short of live fire is not acceptable, but we are going to have to say it is acceptable when it isn't," a Navy officer told the press. "This thing has ceased to be an operational matter, and is completely a political football."

On December 3, Clinton made his offer. The Navy would give up the western part of the island, pull out of Vieques in five years, and use only inert ordnance for ninety days a year. They would also provide $40 million for improving environmental and living conditions, build a pier and artificial reef for the fishermen, and help preserve one of the bioluminescent bays. This was "as good," Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said, "as we can come up with."

Rosselló rejected it. In fact, he was outraged. "I feel deceived with the position that's been taken," he said, "because it doesn't faithfully reflect what we have been discussing with the president."

The Navy had been reluctant to make time commitments on paper, and when at the last moment it did, the date of withdrawal had changed from December 31, 2004, to a vague five-year period. And crucial assurances -- such as the fixing of the agreement in a legally binding form, and a guarantee for the $40 million -- were still missing. Rossello's team was also concerned about the degree of congressional support for the Navy's terms -- essential for the passing of binding legislation. Rossello began to balk.

According to sources who'd worked closely with Clinton on this, the Navy's last-minute omissions caused an eruption in the White House. "One issue," said Clinton's Deputy Chief of Staff María Echaveste, "was civilian control of the military -- that Vieques did not necessarily permanently belong to the Navy."

From the Pentagon's perspective, Puerto Rico had already been accorded more due diligence than most state governments. But after the December 3 debacle, this would change. Henceforth, Secretary Morey's delegation would be treated more like that of a separate, sovereign state.

The Norfolk carrier group was diverted from Vieques. "This marked the first time that America and its territories have turned their backs on the responsibility to train those who go forth to protect our national interest, said Senator Warner. "With this decision, leaders tolerated civil disobedience which had a direct, adverse impact on our Navy and Marines."

Two weeks later, Warner and Inhofe, with Navy support, initiated measures to close down Roosevelt Roads. Rosselló branded it "a petty political move."

Vieques Main

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© 2001 Roger Trilling, El Andar Magazine