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New York Daily News
It's Same Verse, Second Chorus
by JUAN GONZALEZ
June 15, 2001
With all due respect to President Bush, this week's announcement by his administration that the Navy will leave its 60-year-old bombing range in Vieques by May 2003 changes nothing.
Despite all the media attention it has received, the President's decision signals no major policy change in the two-year-old standoff with Puerto Rico .
Bush has merely reaffirmed a plan adopted by his predecessor, Bill Clinton, and approved by Congress.
Under Clinton's plan, the Navy was scheduled to leave Vieques by the same date if a majority of the 9,400 residents of Vieques voted against the range in a November referendum.
The Navy has less chance of winning that referendum than I do of being the space shuttle's next passenger. Bush knows that, so he's aiming to skip the formality of an embarrassing referendum defeat.
Unfortunately, he opted for the same drawn-out exit strategy devised by Clinton. It is a strategy rejected by most Puerto Ricans , including the island's governor, Sila Maria Calderon, because it permits periodic Navy exercises with inert bombs for the next two years.
That's why Calderon approved a new referendum this week, set for July 29. That referendum has an option Clinton's did not - an immediate withdrawal of the Navy and a request that the federal government clean up environmental contamination caused by years of bombing.
At Sunday's National Puerto Rican Day Parade on Fifth Ave., virtually every float in the parade displayed "Peace for Vieques " signs, and every Puerto Rican celebrity interviewed, from the new Miss Universe to boxing champion Felix (Tito) Trinidad, made public statements of support for Vieques .
Bush acknowledged those sentiments during his trip to Sweden this week, when he said at a press conference: "These are our friends and neighbors, and they don't want us there." He neglected to mention that Puerto Rico 's 3.8 million residents are also American citizens and that many have proudly served in the military.
"There has been some harm done to people [in Vieques ] in the past," he conceded.
So why won't he order the Navy to move out as quickly as possible?
Like too many civilian leaders, Bush seems fearful of challenging our military brass. The Navy, for instance, has long claimed that Vieques is an irreplaceable range because it allows simultaneous bombing from both ships and planes in coordination with amphibious landing exercises.
Yet a new round of exercises that began in Vieques this week will involve only bombing from planes. That bombing, which starts Monday, is sure to lead to more civil disobedience protests, more confrontations and a new wave of arrests. If there are no plans for amphibious landings or ship-to-shore bombing, why use Vieques at all? Why not utilize one of several other bombing ranges available?
Bush needs to remind the Navy that in our system of democracy, it's the political leaders who command the military, not the other way around.