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Denver Post

Vieques Move Right, Despite Politics

by Ruben Navarrette

July 1, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Denver Post. All Rights Reserved.

Cynical political analysts were quick to attribute President Bush's decision to halt bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques to nudging from advisers who believed that the gesture would help woo Hispanic voters.

If that's true, then Bush needs better advisers, with a more sophisticated understanding of Hispanic voters.

At issue is not whether the decision was the right one. It was. The world's last remaining superpower should not become too comfortable with the concept of using a locale that is home to nearly 10,000 people as a bombing range. Nor should Americans be comfortable with the fact that the bombardiers - the U.S. Navy - responded to critics with more gunboat than diplomacy. Swaggering Navy brass seemed offended that civilians would dare question official policy. The offensive part is that military officers charged with preserving democracy should, in a U.S. territory, exhibit such disdain for protest - which is nothing if not democracy exercised.

When officials pledged last week to end the Navy training exercises by May 2003, the policy shift was blasted both by activists who want relief to come at once, and hard-liners who accused the administration of playing politics with national security.

In the political cost-and-benefit analysis in this MBA-laden White House, the cost was clear. But will the benefit - the alleged boost from allegedly appreciative Hispanic voters - ever materialize?

The Casa Blanca shouldn't hold its breath.

As Hispanic overtures go, Vieques is not bad. It is, in fact, a notable improvement over what occurred during the eight-year run of that black-and-white sitcom known as the Clinton-Gore administration. Time and again in seeking Hispanic support, the two bubbas on the bus broke the main rule: First, do no insult. Bill Clinton largely limited Hispanic outreach to his frequent forays into Mexican restaurants, while Al Gore once went so far as to share with a Hispanic audience his hope that he might, one day, have a grandchild born on Cinco de Mayo.

At least the Bush administration's sales pitch to Hispanics - often delivered in Spanish - doesn't embarrass the customer.

The problem here is not the pitch; it is the target audience. Labels and other demographic shorthand only get one so far. Different flavors of U.S. Hispanics have not only different family histories and countries of origin, but also often radically different pressing concerns, personal beliefs and political priorities.

During the national argument last year over Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy rescued from the open sea, anti-Castro Cuban-Americans who wanted to keep the boy in the United States met resistance from Mexican-Americans, many of whom thought he should be reunited with his father in Cuba.

In the immigration debate, the outrage of Mexican-Americans living in the Southwest over militarized borders or guest workers or cutting immigrant benefits must baffle their distant relatives in the East who don't have those worries. Cuban-Americans benefit from that generous Cold War relic, the Cuban Adjustment Act, which gives them preferential treatment in seeking legal residency and citizenship. Puerto Ricans migrate to the United States not as immigrants, but as U.S. citizens.

Now, here we are again at a point of diverging interests. Does anyone - in the Bush administration or the media - really believe that the Navy's about-face on Vieques will resonate, one way or the other, with those Hispanics who are not Puerto Rican ? And even if it does, Republicans might want to hold off on printing those ' Puerto Ricans for Bush' buttons. Unlike Cuban-Americans who are solidly Republican, and Mexican-Americans who have shown that they will cross party lines to vote for candidates to their liking, Puerto Ricans have been consistently loyal and reliable Democratic voters.

So, whatever political fallout may come its way over the brave decision to stop shelling Vieques , the Bush administration may not be able to bank on much political benefit in terms of renewed support among Hispanic voters. The satisfaction that a great power may have taken a small step toward stopping the terrorizing of innocents will just have to suffice.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. ( is an editorial writer and columnist for The Dallas Morning News.

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