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Vieques Flexes Potent Political Muscle

by Robert Becker

July 13, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

A few days after the April 19, 1999 Navy bombing accident on Vieques that claimed the life of David Sanes, I ran into one of the survivors of the training accident in a nightclub near the huge Navy base at Roosevelt Roads.

The survivor was a civilian Navy contract employee, and was still shell-shocked and suffering from wounds from the bomb shrapnel when I saw him.

What surprised me was that he seemed philosophical about the accident. He said nothing bad about the Navy, and ascribed the accident as one of the unfortunate consequences of maintaining military readiness. "It was one of those things," he said then.

Little did he know, as he sipped a beer at the bar, that the accident he had barely survived would become a national issue that would unite Hispanics across the nation and become a substantial issue in U.S. election campaigns.

The most numerous and influential Hispanic groups in the United States are those of Mexican, Cuban and Puerto Rican extraction. Their interests are often different, yet they came together on Vieques, which had come to symbolize a demand for dignity and equal treatment. It united the disparate members of the congressional Hispanic caucus, and they were able to mobilize enough pressure to prompt President Bush to order the Navy’s departure from Vieques by 2003 -- and as an unintended consequence, to utter his unfortunate "They don’t want us down there" remark about Puerto Rico.

Apart from uniting U.S. Hispanics, Vieques also became the battle ground for the reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton for the leadership of the black civil rights movement. After Jackson had staked out a claim to the Vieques issue with a high-profile visit to the island, Sharpton rushed down to Vieques just in time to get arrested for trespassing on the Camp García range at the end of maneuvers in early May. One-upped by Sharpton, Jackson dispatched his wife, Jacqueline, who protected the family Vieques franchise by getting arrested on Camp García in June.

In New York State politics, the Vieques issue also loomed large. Republican Gov. George Pataki made the pilgrimage to Vieques in early April and cemented his new friendship with Popular Democratic party Gov. Sila M. Calderón, whose party has traditionally aligned with the Democrats.

Despite some boilerplate remarks about protecting the human rights of the people of Vieques, Pataki was obviously courting the votes of New York’s 1.3 million Puerto Ricans. The deal he struck with Calderón was he would intercede with the White House on Vieques, while Calderón would endorse his reelection bid, and campaign with him in New York.

That left Andrew Cuomo, the son of the former New York governor and Pataki’s likely 2002 opponent, vulnerable among Puerto Rican voters. Poppa came to the rescue. Mario Cuomo flew down to San Juan to represent, as attorney, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., New York City labor leader Dennis Rivera and six others in U.S. District Court on Vieques civil disobedience charges. The high-powered legal defense team, which totaled 11 lawyers, didn’t impress Judge Héctor Lafitte, who sentenced seven of the defendants to jail terms of 30 to 60 days.

The best example of the emergence of Vieques as a national issue uniting Hispanics is the treatment afforded it by the White House. The congressional Hispanic caucus held a hearing featuring tearful tales of abuse by three female Puerto Rican senators while under they were in Navy custody after trespassing on the firing range. The Cuban- and Mexican-American members of the caucus were moved by the testimony, and they appeared to have responded to Vieques as one of personal dignity and fair and equal treatment of Hispanics.

Bush felt the pressure, and responded by issuing an order on June 14 that the Navy leave Vieques within a reasonable time, which is widely believed to be its May, 2003 date if it had lost the November referendum.

Bush’s decision was attributed to political adviser Karl Rove, who met with top Navy officials the day before Bush’s order. Rove’s job is to see to it that Bush is reelected in 2004, and it was plain that the Vieques decision was made to protect Bush’s flanks with Hispanic voters. Apart from the pressure from the Hispanic caucus, Rove also had had to have an eye on the 2000 census results, which showed Hispanics as the fastest growing minority in the United States and a rising political power in key states, including Florida, where President Bush’s brother Jeb is governor.

The die was cast.

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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