Puerto Rico has won the battle of Vieques. That is, unless it throws away its victory in an excess of nationalistic fervor.
This is the only conclusion to be drawn from President Clinton's announcement last Friday that the U.S. Navy won't drop any more live bombs on the 54-square-mile island 30 miles west of St. Croix. But Mr. Clinton also wants to negotiate with San Juan a five-year transition period during which the Navy could drop only dummy bombs—no explosives—on the bombing range. During that time the Navy would search for a replacement bombing range. And at the end of the five years, the American military would depart Vieques for good.
It's a handsome offer, especially when you consider the Navy has been conducting live-ammunition exercises on the tiny island for half a century.
But there was no dancing in the streets in San Juan over the weekend. Instead, Gov. Pedro Rossello promptly declared Mr. Clinton's compromise "unacceptable." Opposition political leaders as well as the Roman Catholic hierarchy signed on to their governor's declaration that the last bomb—dummy or live—has fallen on Vieques.
So the stage has been set for another confrontation next April, when the Navy hopes to hold exercises—no live ammunition—at what it calls the "crown jewel" of its training areas in the Atlantic Ocean. The exercises scheduled for this month have been cancelled and a Navy battle group led by the aircraft carrier Eisenhower will depart after the holidays for the Mediterranean and, later, the Persian Gulf without undergoing the level of combat training the Navy considers essential.
Congressional Republicans, citing national security, are unhappy about the President's offer to eliminate the live bombing. Puerto Ricans would be well advised to consider what might happen if a year from now the United States has a Republican president and the Vieques dispute is still simmering.
So intent is the White House on settling the Vieques issue now that Defense Secretary William Cohen threw out a strong hint that unless La Fortaleza accepted the American five-year plan, the Defense Department would be forced to re-examine the presence on Puerto Rico of two U.S. military installations, the Roosevelt Roads Navy Base on the east end of the island—near Vieques—and the Army command headquarters known as U.S. Army South. The latter moved to Puerto Rico from Panama a year ago at the urging of the Puerto Rican government. Both installations pour a lot of dollars into the Puerto Rico economy.
There's no sign the Puerto Ricans are heeding Cohen's hint.
Since last April, when a stray bomb killed a Puerto Rican security guard on the island, the smallest of Puerto Rico's three political parties, the Independence party, has been remarkably sucessful in pushing Vieques to the top of the political agenda in San Juan.
Party leader Ruben Berrios now resides in a tent encampment on the Vieques beach, ready to repel invaders, who until now have been limited to reporters interviewing him for the American press. Sila Calderon, mayor of San Juan and leader of the Commonwealth party, says she will join Berrios on the sands of Vieques' north shore.
Governor Rossello's position must be awkward for him. His political party espouses Statehood for Puerto Rico. But he decided he couldn't ignore the nationalistic fervor sweeping his territory, and grabbed a flag to march at the head of the parade.
With good reason, however, he must be wondering about the future of his party's main goal when, in the view of Congressional Republicans and the defense establishment in Washington, he's endangering the national security of the country he wants his territory to join.
Make no mistake about it, Vieques is one of those rare issues that transcends political boundaries in a land where the three political parties rarely agree on anything. If the political parties remain united, they can make it difficult, if not impossible, for the American military to drop even dummy bombs on Vieques twice a year for the next five years.
However, now that the last live bomb has fallen on Vieques, Puerto Ricans should savor their victory—one that we applaud—but consider the consequences of humiliating Washington by insisting on immediate and complete American withdrawal from the bombing range.
Editor's note: Frank J. Jordan is an editor for The Source, a local radio commentator, a former UVI journalism professor and a former NBC News executive.


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