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Stand Firm On Vieques

Puerto Rico must not become a place where politics overrule our national-security interests.

By Jim Boulet Jr.
Executive Director, English First

May 4, 2001
Copyright © 2001 NATIONAL REVIEW. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rico must not become for the Bush administration what China was for Bill Clinton: a place where political calculation and campaign fundraising overrule our national-security interests.

U.S. troops have trained on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, since World War II. In April, 1999, a civilian security guard was killed by an off-target bomb. Since then, Puerto Rico has been the scene of anti-Navy protest marches, rallies, and demonstrations. Months of bargaining resulted in an agreement to allow the Navy to continue training on Vieques, albeit in a limited way.

That agreement on Vieques by Gov. Pedro Rossello was credited with the rout of his Statehood Party last November. The island's Commonwealth Party won control of the governorship and both chambers of Puerto Rico's legislature.

Keep in mind that elections on the impoverished island of Puerto Rico mean considerably more than they do in the United States. The government controls about 50% of the island's economy directly or indirectly, which means every election determines who gets to earn a living.

Accordingly, residents of Puerto Rico follow political matters with the keen interest Texans reserve for oil prices. Meanwhile, most U.S. residents have difficulty locating Puerto Rico on a map and follow the island's politics not at all. This situation maximizes opportunities for political pandering to the most parochial interests of Puerto Rico, such as Vieques.

Both Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio called for an end to "military target practice on the island of Vieques" during their 2000 contest for the Senate. (About 1.3 million Puerto Ricans call New York home.) On March 13th, now-Senator Clinton joined with her colleague, Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) in calling for a permanent end to bombing on Vieques.

A steady stream of politicians have found their way to the island recently, including New York's Republican governor George Pataki, who traveled to Puerto Rico in April.

Pataki's visit included a quick $1,000 per plate fundraiser. Those aware of Puerto Rico's role as the piggy bank of American politics were not surprised.

Any politician, Republican or Democrat, will find Puerto Rico a place where people understand fundraising. Puerto Rico residents invested $3,672,259 during the 1999-2000 election cycle. George Bush received $345,650 for his campaign, Al Gore $223,250, Bill Bradley $200,500 and John McCain a relative pittance of $11,750.

Puerto Rico was also the source of $2.8 million in campaign contributions for 1996 races. Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.) received $93,800 directly for his campaign as well as $95,000 for his Committee for a Democratic Majority; Robert Torricelli (D., N.J.) earned $56,400; House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt received $40,000.

When it comes to obtaining soft money for political parties, once again, Puerto Rico is the place to go. Puerto Rico provided $429,404 in 1999-2000. Puerto Rico's top 15 soft money donors gave $286,750 to Democrats and $16,750 to Republicans.

According to the American Prospect, Dr. Richard Machado, a Puerto Rican hospital owner and Commonwealth Party supporter gave the Democratic National Committee $250,000 "includ[ing] a gift of $200,000 on November 3, 1995, the largest single donation from guests who breakfasted with Clinton between 1995 and 1996."

A 1998 Boston Globe report found that $1,041,350 in soft money was sent from Puerto Rico to "political committees on the American mainland for the 1996 elections." Oil-rich Alaska, by contrast, generated but $154,000.

Puerto Rico is a major player in the lobbying game as well. Puerto Rico's various government entitles have a lot of money to spend: $4,758,113 in 1999, $4,044,505 in 1998, and $4,115,396 in 1997.

To put these sums in perspective, consider that in 1998, "the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico" was 59th on the list of top spenders on lobbying. The AFL-CIO ranked 57th that year, while Microsoft was 68th.

The lobbyists hired by the Rossello regime earned their daily bread in part by working on the Vieques issue. Now the Calderon government can spend similar sums on behalf of her agenda – which includes a complete U.S. Navy withdrawal from Vieques.

There will no doubt be respected Republican political advisors who will once again sing the tired song of winning the Hispanic vote by pandering to Puerto Rico. "Since we are going to lose Vieques anyway," they will whisper, "President Bush should order the Navy out in order to win Hispanic support."

Congressman Jose Serrano (D., N.Y.) told the New York Times that Pataki, and by extension, Republicans generally "will be surprised to find out that Puerto Ricans will be grateful but will still vote Democratic."

The main reason the Bush Administration should stand firm on Vieques is that the lose of Vieques will put at risk all American military training everywhere else.

The Navy has pursued two possible alternatives to Vieques, Cape Wrath in northern Scotland and Capo Teulada in southern Sardinia. Why would Scotland or Italy tolerate Navy training that Puerto Rico rejects? Thankfully, Bush blocked Clinton's last-day Executive Order directing "the secretary of defense to develop alternatives to training on Vieques."

If the Navy is expelled from Vieques, other places which currently host U.S. military installations, such as Okinawa, will surely follow.

It is not like the military presently has an easy time conducting needed training: "U.S. pilots of Apache helicopters needed remedial training once they reached Albania because authorities in Germany, where they were based, had banned nighttime training."

Some Maryland residents want the Dahlgren Naval Surface Warfare Center, in operation at its current location since 1918, to move because of the noise produced by ammunition tests. A lawsuit was recently filed in El Paso against the Air Force conducting practice bombing runs. (No complaints have been filed as yet by Oklahoma residents objecting to live-fire training in their state by Puerto Rico's National Guard.)

President Bush, please stand with our men and women in uniform who are depending on you to make sure they get the training they need.

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