President Bush is standing by a U.S. Navy decision to wait up to two years before ending bombing exercises on Puerto Rico's Vieques Island. On Sunday, the people of Vieques overwhelmingly approved a non-binding referendum calling for an immediate end to the bombing. The White House says the Navy needs more time to find an alternative site.
White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer says the President is trying to find a balance between the desires of the Puerto Rican people, and the needs of the U.S. Navy. "The President has always said it is very important to listen to the people of Puerto Rico, and he has," Mr. Fleischer said. "The President also believes it is very important to have a seamless transition so that our military can be the best trained it can be."
Sunday's vote in Vieques was largely symbolic. But it dramatized the depth of the opposition to a continued presence by the U.S. Navy. 70 percent of those who voted said they want the Navy to leave now, and 30 percent voted for the Navy to stay indefinitely. Less than two percent said they favor the two year timetable put forward by President Bush.
As the results of the referendum became public, the Navy announced it would resume military maneuvers Wednesday while it continues its search for an alternative training site. At the White House, Ari Fleischer said the legitimate needs of the military must be taken into account. "These matters are not only decided by referendum," he said. "They are decided by a variety of factors that represents a balanced approach. And that is what the president has done here."
Calls for a withdrawal from Vieques have escalated in the last three years. Protests on the island began to grow after a Puerto Rican security guard was accidentally killed by two off-target bombs on a firing range.
The fate of Vieques remains highly controversial both in Puerto Rico and in Washington. And the announcement in June of a two year deadline for withdrawal from Vieques drew criticism from both sides of the issue.
Opponents of the withdrawal, primarily congressional republicans, say it could effect military readiness. The Vieques protesters and their supporters on Capitol Hill say the withdrawal does not come soon enough.
Another referendum will be held in the issue in November. It will be legally binding and all Puerto Ricans will be able to participate. But there will be only two options on the ballot. Voters will choose between President Bush's two year timetable for withdrawal, and an indefinite Navy presence on Vieques.