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Politico Media Enterprises
Time For Vieques Summit
By James E. Garcia
February 26, 2001
Puerto Rico's new governor, Sila Calderon, says she has a message for President Bush.
"This is exactly what I'm asking for: To stop the bombing in Vieques," Calderon said. "The Navy should stop the bombing in Vieques immediately. Immediately."
Calderon hoped to deliver that message to Bush during this week's gathering of the nation's governors in Washington.
The once pristine island of Vieques, in case you haven't followed the story, is the terrestrial bulls eye that the U.S. Navy and Marines use to practice amphibious bombing and invasion missions.
For years, it's been the perfect place for the U.S. military to conduct these exercises. First, it's an island. Second, we own it. And best of all, for decades, almost no one complained.
Well, not anyone who mattered, as far as the Pentagon and Congress were concerned.
Things have changed. Vieques residents are now fed up. They're tired of the environmental destruction. They're tired of the noise. They're tired of the health risks. And they want the bombing to stop. Immediately.
The complaints are not new. What is new is that their protests are finally being heard.
It helps that Calderon, who took office in November, is now Vieques' most prominent defender. But the real thrust behind the Vieques movement has been the tireless work of activists on the ground.
It seems America's military might has met it match. It's called people power. In the face of Navy bombs and beach assaults, activists have responded with civil disobedience and a public relations offensive that's included a protester wielding a Puerto Rican flag and scaling the Statue of Liberty, peaceful occupations of the "Navy's property," and the arrest of several prominent U.S. politicos and celebrities.
The Vieques cause is also helped by the growing political clout of Latinos nationwide.
President Bush is working overtime to stake a claim to the burgeoning Latino electorate. He's appointed a Cuban American from Florida to head the federal housing department, a Mexican American from Texas as his White House counsel, and a West Coast Latino to lead the President's office of Intergovernmental affairs.
They're all conservatives, so don't expect them to take up la causa anytime soon. But the appointments do show that Bush and the GOP are increasingly sensitive to the interests of Latino voters.
(For the record, observers credit Cuban Americans for helping Bush edge out Gore in Florida last November. But next time around, Puerto Ricans there could win the state for the Democrats.)
As for Calderon: I believe she can be an effective advocate for Vieques. Yet the bombing there isn't likely to end unless the Vieques movement can attract broader support among Latinos and other advocacy groups.
I think it's time for a Latino-led summit on Vieques. It should be hosted by Calderon in Washington. That way the world news media can attend without their corporate bean counters complaining about the cost of air fare to San Juan. (Believe me, bureau chiefs are notoriously cheap when it comes to covering Latino news.)
The Washington summit should include Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, Central Americans, and, yes, even Cuban Americans -- no matter that they strongly backed Bush's campaign in 2000. Not to mention, there also is a growing number of moderate and even liberal Cuban Americans who are increasingly willing to form coalitions with other U.S. Latinos.
Furthermore, the movement to stop the bombing in Vieques is an issue that can and should cross party and racial lines. So influential non-Latino activists and public officials should also be invited.
No matter what the Pentagon says, politics had a lot to do with why America uses Vieques as a target range. And it will have lot to do with getting the Navy out.
Sixty years ago, when the practice began, Puerto Ricans were politically helpless to stop it. Today, Calderon has a chance to make clear to President Bush that the people of Vieques are powerless no more.
By the way, Bush also should be invited to that Latino-led summit on Vieques, so he can face his newest constituents.
Garcia is editor and publisher of Politico. E-mail him at Politico1@aol.com.