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Vieques Interests Floridians

by Tamara Lytle

January 20, 2001
Copyright © 2001 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

Tax cuts and education are the big-ticket issues for George W. Bush, but Floridians will be watching closely to see where he stands on matters closer to home.

Will Bush allow drilling off Pensacola and other places along the coastline? Will he help the 800,000 elderly Floridians with no insurance who need help paying for costly prescription drugs?

Then there’s the question of the Navy’s ongoing struggle over military exercises on its base in Vieques -- an issue close to the heart of many of Central Florida’s Puerto Ricans.

How much of anything Bush will get done is a matter of speculation, owing to his controversial victory and a nearly evenly divided Congress.

"It’s going to make a very rocky honeymoon," said Terri Fine, professor of political science at the University of Central Florida. "Just because Bush has an agenda doesn’t mean he’s going to get it through without compromises."

One of the most controversial environmental issues facing Bush in Florida is whether to allow offshore oil drilling. He has vowed to oppose new leases. But he has said he would look at a "case-by-case" basis at whether to allow drilling under existing leases.

Bush is likely to hear from his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, on another hot issue in Florida -- how to deal with Fidel Castro. The active Cuban-American population in Florida has opposed the loosening of the embargo against communist Cuba.

Since Cuban-American voters are part of the reason Bush will take the oath of office today, he’s unlikely to cross them, said Susan McManus, political science professor at University of South Florida.

"I don’t think you’ll see any reaching out to Fidel Castro," said pollster Brad Coker. "I think you’ll see some hardening."

Both brothers are less hard-line on immigration than other Republicans who want tighter controls and would cut services for immigrant families, McManus said. During the campaign, Bush pledged $500 million to speed up processing for immigration applications.

"These two brothers come from diverse states with large Hispanic populations and have many Hispanic supporters," she said. "They understand the Hispanic vote is critical to the future of the Republican Party. The quickest way to alienate them is through immigration issues."

But Bush could end up angering a different Hispanic constituency -- Puerto Ricans. President Clinton oversaw a deal to stop the Navy from dropping live bombs on a training facility in Vieques, after an errant bomb killed a civilian. The Navy is now required to give Vieques residents the right to vote to oust the military from the island.

But Flavio Cumpiano, of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, said Puerto Ricans are worried Bush will overturn that. He could allow the Navy to stay and let them resume the live bombing.

"There’s a fear the Bush administration is going to be pretty hawkish on military issues and allow the Navy to continue bombing," Cumpiano said.

Ari Fleischer, spokesman for Bush, said the issue hasn’t been decided. But Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s pick for defense secretary, spoke last week about the importance of live fire training to the military.

Tamara Lytle can be reached at 202-824-8255, or

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