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Bush Order Upsets Vieques Dynamics

by Robert Becker

June 15, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Talk about upsetting the apple cart.

On Wednesday, the same day that the U.S. Navy began 18 days of maneuvers off Vieques and Gov. Sila Calderón tearfully signed the “criollo referendum” legislation, press reports stated that President Bush would order the Navy to leave Vieques.

Bush’s order, disclosed while the President was visiting NATO leaders in Europe, would require the Navy to leave Vieques by 2003. It bears all the earmarks of a political decision. It does not, however, appear to give up very much to the Vieques protesters, including Calderón. They have been campaigning for the permanent halt of Navy bombing and shelling and for the Navy’s immediate departure from Vieques.

Neither of those will happen.

Bush wasn’t giving up much, because all signs were pointing to a Navy defeat in the Nov. 6 referendum. Internal polls commissioned by the Navy showed their opponents ahead by more than 10 percentage points, and a San Juan Star poll of Vieques residents showed just 39 percent of them wanted the Navy to stay.

Karl Rove, Bush’s domestic political adviser, was instrumental in his decision. Rove wanted a decision that would help Bush with Hispanic voters in 2004, particularly in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Illinois. Rove prevailed over pro-military advisers who wanted the Navy to stay on Vieques, with the resumption of live fire hovering somewhere in the distance.

The order reportedly infuriated military leaders at the Pentagon. But Bush will no doubt explain his decision as one that cut the military’s losses and got the best out of a bad situation. The Navy continues to train on Vieques for two years, while it finds a new place to replace the Vieques range facilities. By the reckoning of most observers, the Navy was going to be voted out in two years anyway, so Bush’s action made the November referendum moot.

Calderón visited a church on Vieques on the day the Bush order was leaked to CBS News. She said she would continue her efforts to oust the Navy, “no matter what happens.” apparently unaware of Bush’s impending decision. She chose to pick the day of the resumption of the Navy training to sign her bill to hold a commonwealth-sponsored referendum on Vieques on July 29.

Bush made a concession to Calderón, albeit a small one. If Calderón presses forward with her Navy-out-now campaign, she will appear utterly intransigent, and likely to feel a rise in hostility from official Washington.

If she accedes to the Bush overture, Calderón will lose the support of the independence supporters whose votes helped her win the governorship in 2000. She will be called a sell-out. Her decision at this point will be pivotal.

While Calderón was expected to win the July and November votes, the anti-Navy movement was losing ground on other important fronts.

One of the most recent setbacks was on the public relations front, the victim being her vibroacoustic disease theory, which held that Vieques residents suffered heart damage as a result of noise from Navy shelling 10 miles away. The commonwealth tacitly acknowledged its worthlessness in a change of strategy in its lawsuit against the Navy, which was filed in April in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Commonwealth lawyers used the vibroacoustic disease theory to seek a permanent injunction against the Navy bombing, arguing the military training was an immediate danger to the health of the people of the offshore island.

But in a motion filed June 8, the commonwealth abandoned the theory, instead substituting its argument the bombing caused psychological harm to Vieques residents.

The explanation offered by Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Annabelle Rodríguez was that it would take 10 years to establish the scientific basis of the vibroacoustic theory. More likely, the commonwealth was anticipating that Judge Gladys Kessler would rule in a similar vein to her initial decision to deny a temporary retraining order against the bombing. Kessler had cited the lack of scientific evidence to link the bombing to the purported disease.

The abandonment of the vibroacoustic disease strategy was one more instance of the commonwealth’s failure to prove that Navy training has harmed the people of viequenses. The commonwealth has also failed to show any environmental damage outside the immediate area of the bombing range.

Calderón all along has argued the Vieques issue is a health, environmental and human rights issue. The Bush decision placed it squarely in the political arena, where it has resided all along. The major question that everyone will be asking here in the coming days is whether the Bush order will be widely accepted, or whether the protest movement will continue in its quixotic quest to halt the Navy bombing.

Robert Becker, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at:

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