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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Three Changing Places With Local Impact

By Deborah Ramirez

June 30, 2001
Copyright © 2001 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

Cuba's Fidel Castro nearly passed out in public. President Bush wants the Navy to leave Vieques by 2003. Vicente Fox of Mexico battled his first public scandal involving, of all things, luxury towels.

These three recent, unrelated events in the Americas hold implications for U.S. politics and hemispheric relations. Each has tentacles that reach South Florida.

Castro, Vieques and government spending on luxury towels south of the border.

How are these related and how do they affect South Florida?


For one thing, when Castro swoons, South Florida convulses. A videotape of Cuba's aging leader slumped over his lecturn last week played again and again on television. Page 1 headlines screamed: Who would fill Castro's boots after he is gone and how would Washington react?

This much is clear. As Castro ages (he turns 75 in August), the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba grows more decrepit. The policy doesn't recognize that Cuba is changing, nor is it trying to prevent a disaster 90 miles from U.S. shores. Social meltdown in a post-Castro era could make the 1980 Mariel boatlift look like a day at the beach. South Florida would be in the direct line of fire.

Waiting for Fidel to keel over and figuring out what to do next isn't much of a plan.

Yet that about sums up current U.S. policy toward Cuba. Just after the first anniversary of the return of shipwreck victim Elián González to his homeland, what better time to shop for a new Cuba policy?

Washington should look for ways to influence the process, speaking up for human rights but also respecting Cuba's sovereignty. We do this for China. For starters, why not let American tourists visit Cuba?

Vieques, which is part of Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, is in the same Caribbean neighborhood as Cuba.

About two weeks ago, the Navy announced it would close its bombing range on the 20-mile-long island by 2003. The decision was reached with a big push from the White House.

Conservative Republicans in Congress went ballistic, attacking the president for putting electoral politics (the growing Hispanic vote) ahead of military preparedness.

I confess it was fun to watch Republicans fight among each other. But if Bush keeps his promise to halt bombing exercises in Vieques -- he has yet to sign an executive order closing the bombing range -- I hope many Hispanics do vote for him. It would send the message that on issues of substance, the concerns of these voters cannot be ignored.

Vieques has emerged as a burning civil rights issue for many Hispanic groups other than Puerto Ricans. This became clear when Mexican-American actor Edward James Olmos joined protesters arrested during Vieques bombing exercises in April.

The issue makes for interesting dynamics within the Republican Party. National officeholders, such as the president, and those in states with large Hispanic communities cannot easily ignore a civil rights issue such as Vieques. Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., said Bush's decision to close the Navy's premiere training site in two years puts "men and women in uniform at risk." In contrast, Republican Gov. George E. Pataki of New York, a state with more Hispanics than Oklahoma, said of the Bush Vieques plan: "My goal is to have it stopped now."

No political leader should make decisions that favor any one group to the detriment of the nation. But claims that Vieques is the only place in the world where the Atlantic fleet can hold joint air, sea and land exercises don't ring true. In addition, the Navy makes $80 million a year renting the tiny island to foreign navies and Vieques gets none of the money but all of the related environmental, noise and health problems.

It's not difficult to see why it has become a civil rights concern.

Vieques also is important to a growing number of Florida voters. Hispanics' numbers jumped in the 2000 census and Florida has replaced New Jersey as home to the nation's second-largest Puerto Rican community. Developments in Vieques are watched closely by many in the Sunshine State.

In Mexico, the Fox administration is dealing with its first big wasteful spending scandal, appropriately dubbed "towelgate." It seems someone at the presidential palace ordered $440,000 worth of monogrammed towels and luxury linen. For a government that has promised to clean up corruption and in a country where half the population lives in poverty, the dirty linen scandal is a major embarrassment.

Fox won Mexico's historic presidential elections last year, ending 71 years of continuous rule by the same party and promising clean government. He deserves heat for his staff's towel-buying spree, which he has promised to investigate. The truth is, however, that Fox cannot end government corruption in Mexico. If this is the standard, he will fail.The best Fox can do is bring corruption under control, to levels that are less harmful to the country.

Mexico's towelgate underscores a growing realization that developing countries cannot prosper without rule of law and transparency. Mexicans have even translated the concept of accountability -- there is no direct translation for the word in Spanish -- as obligacion de rendir cuentas or obligation to render accounts.

Rule of law and transparency is the positive side of American influence in today's world, much of it coming through increased trade. It is no coincidence that Mexico has become more democratic and open along with becoming the United States' second-largest trading partner.

Gov. Jeb Bush's goal is to increase trade with Mexico, and the state's Mexican population is growing. In Palm Beach County, for instance, Mexican-Americans have surpassed Cubans as the largest Hispanic group.

Cuba, Vieques and Mexico -- three changing places with local impact.

Stayed tuned.

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