SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – The U.S. Navy on Friday postponed until January a referendum allowing Vieques residents to decide if bombing exercises should continue on their island or be halted in 2003.
The referendum, established under an agreement between the governments of former President Clinton and former Gov. Pedro Rossello, had been set for Nov. 6.
Gov. Sila Calderon's office released a letter from Navy Secretary Gordon England on Friday in which he ordered the vote to be rescheduled for Jan. 25.
"I am exercising my statutory authority to postpone the referendum," England said. The Navy chief said he might consider discussions on an earlier date if it would be "more convenient."
But Calderon said Friday night she wanted more assurances the Navy would comply with Bush's promise, demanding "federal legislation that the Navy will comply with that."
And some anti-Navy activists on Vieques were suspicious of the Navy's intentions.
"They are giving themselves time to totally eliminate the referendum," said Carlos Zenon, a fisherman and Navy critic.
The referendum has been in question since last month when a House defense bill included a provision to cancel the vote and require the Navy to keep using the island until a comparable training site is found. The House and Senate are to finalize the wording of a law soon.
England said the Congressional turmoil created by the Sept. 11 terror attacks made it "advisable to postpone the currently scheduled referendum to allow time for the U.S. Congress to act."
Residents of the Puerto Rican island were to decide in the vote whether the Navy should leave in 2003 or stay and pay $50 million for public works projects.
President Bush also has said the Navy should withdraw by 2003.
"This postponement does not in any way preclude the Navy plans to cease training on Vieques by May 2003," England said in his letter to the U.S. territory's governor.
"We plan to cease training in May 2003," said Capt. Kevin Wensing, a spokesman for England. "We have a study that's currently ongoing that's looking at alternative sites."
The Navy has bombed the eastern tip of Vieques for six decades, training sailors for conflicts from World War II to the Persian Gulf War. Opponents say the bombardment harms the environment and health of Vieques' 9,100 residents — accusations the Navy denies.
In a nonbinding locally administered referendum in July, 68 percent of Vieques voters said the Navy should leave immediately.
A group of anti-Navy activists also brought a lawsuit seeking to halt the November vote, saying it wrongly leaves out the option of an immediate Navy withdrawal.