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The Record, Bergen County, NJ

Leftists Unwanted In Vieques Protests


June 1, 2001
Copyright © 2001 North Jersey Media Group Inc. All Rights Reserved.

[All Editions: Two Star B; Two Star P; One Star B; Page L09]

LED BY THOSE WHO seek independence for Puerto Rico , the movement to drive the U.S. Navy out of the small Puerto Rican island of Vieques has taken an unfortunate leftist slant in recent months.

Too often, the independence leaders are identified with the extreme anti-American left. By visiting Cuba and consulting with dictator Fidel Castro, they give they impression that they would want an independent Puerto Rico to be a reflection of communist Cuba.

Not all "independentistas" are socialists, but some of the loudest socialists are "independentistas."

And that serves to discourage many Puerto Ricans and other Latinos who would otherwise support and join some honorable causes including that of Vieques .

In our hearts, we know that calling on the U.S. Navy to stop bombing an island inhabited by 9,600 civilians American citizens is the right thing to do. But for many, the thought of being led by anti-American Castro-lovers gets in the way.

That obstacle was swiftly removed this week by Puerto Rico Gov. Sila Maria Calderon, who took an honorable position by rejecting support for the Vieques struggle from the Castro regime.

Calderon is not an "independentista." She supports the current commonwealth relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. But she proved that not all Vieques leaders are leftist demagogues.

She wants the Navy out of Vieques because of health concerns, because the air and water quality is threatened, because human rights are being violated there but not at the expense of teaming up with a much worse human rights violator.

"I reject with all my strength the support of Castro," Calderon said Monday. "I do not accept the support of an anti-American government." On Saturday, Castro had led a government-organized rally outside the American Interests Section in Havana to protest U.S. military exercises on Vieques . He had been joined by Puerto Rican Sen. Fernando Martin, a leader of the Independence Party.

"The struggle over Vieques has become decisive in the liberty of Puerto Rico ," said Martin, ironically showing little concern for the liberty of Cuba.

But Calderon, who has challenged the U.S. government over Vieques , could not be so hypocritical. She felt the need to question Castro's moral authority.

"The struggle for Vieques is a matter of human rights," she said, "and Castro is a communist who violates human rights in Cuba."

The governor's swift rejection of the dictator's support has been a hot topic among Puerto Ricans and other Latinos this week.

Some say any support for Vieques is welcomed, regardless of where it comes from. Others are asking what right Castro has to defend anyone's human rights. And yet others cite the dictator's hypocrisy since there are still both Russian and American military installations in Cuba that he has to tolerate and over which he has no control.

The Navy has used its range on Vieques for six decades and claims it is still vital for U.S. national security. But most Puerto Ricans even though the movement is often led by the pro-independence minority say the people of Vieques have sacrificed enough for U.S. national security.They would like to see another American community step up and volunteer to withstand Navy bombings for the next 60 years.

Among the 180 people arrested for trespassing on Vieques , several high-profile protesters from the Rev. Al Sharpton to actor Edward James Olmos have been making headlines lately. Some have received excessive jail sentences and others are still awaiting a court date.

Fortunately, although they normally defend liberal causes, most are not clearly identified with the pro-Castro left.

For many years, many Puerto Ricans have opposed the Navy bombing exercises on Vieques . But opposition grew after a civilian guard was killed on the range by two off-target bombs in 1999. The Navy has since stopped using live ammunition. But under a deal cut between former Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello and former President Bill Clinton, Vieques residents will vote in November to determine whether the Navy must leave Vieques by May 1, 2003, or stay, resuming the use of live ammunition, in return for $50 million in economic aid to the islanders.

This week, responding to a Navy announcement that it will resume war games on June 13, Calderon threatened to hold another Vieques plebiscite even before the one scheduled for November giving voters a third option of immediately halting the war games.

The governor is defending the will of the voters. By rejecting the support of one who has denied free elections to his own people for 42 years, she has gained respect and credibility. For Vieques , she has gained the support of many who until now had been discouraged by the leftist extremists.

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