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The Washington Post Company

We Bombed In Vieques

By Mary McGrory

July 1, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Washington Post Company. All Rights Reserved.

Not so long ago, Vieques was a dot in the Caribbean, a small, pretty island that the U.S. Navy has been quietly bombing for 60 years. Now, thanks to an indecisive decision by President Bush, a pigheaded performance by Navy brass, and brutish, not to mention jackbooted behavior by Navy police -- many of them strip-search specialists -- Vieques has become world famous.

It is a rallying point for advocates of civil rights, human rights and the environment. It has become a flashpoint between right and left. It has activated members of two prominent political dynasties, the Cuomos and the Kennedys, and it could be an issue in the New York governor's race.

Next Friday, in San Juan, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who joined thousands of Puerto Ricans in protest of the naval exercises, will be tried in federal court. He will be represented by none other than former New York governor Mario Cuomo, the lately silent golden voice of the Democrats. Cuomo's son Andrew is married to Kennedy's sister Kerry. Andrew is a candidate for governor, and New York's Republican governor, George Pataki, is heavily in sympathy with the Vieques protest. Kennedy is charged with trespassing. He will be tried with two confederates, Dennis Rivera, president of the largest health care union in the country, and actor Edward James Olmos. All three say they were treated like dogs by Navy police and actually put in dog kennels overnight and deprived of counsel on the grounds that they were not arrested, only "detained."

None of the hullabaloo can be helping the Bush administration with its all-out overtures to the Hispanic vote. The House Hispanic Caucus, after publication of New York Times columnist Bob Herbert's vivid account of the manhandling and abuse inflicted on peaceful protesters, met recently on the Hill. One victim was Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who was literally kicked around by Navy policemen even though a video shows him following all orders. One uniformed zealot put a foot on the congressman's neck and told him to put his face in the dirt. When some protesters told the guard that Gutierrez was a congressman, the guard laughed.

Karl Rove, the crafty strategist who helped steer Bush into the Oval Office, is particularly proprietary of the Hispanic vote, but he was plainly torn between new friends and old: The right can't stand uppity little commonwealths that have the nerve to tell the military they don't want the racket of bombs and shells -- or the ensuing contamination. Bush's inconclusive conclusion about Vieques was issued during his stop in Goteborg, Sweden, on June 14. What the president said, in effect, was that using the island for target practice was a rotten thing to do to friends and neighbors -- and that we're going to keep doing it for only two more years. Those who were getting arrested to stop the bombing now were no more infuriated than those who never want it to stop at all.

The tone of the public debate was set by the far-right senator from Oklahoma, James Inhofe. He called Puerto Rican protesters "ungrateful, myopic and misinformed." He later characterized the protesters as "Hollywood publicity-seekers or frustrated New York City political activists." He exhorted the people of Vieques to be like the people of Fort Sill, who welcome military installations in their midst. Fort Sill contributes greatly to the local economy. The Navy firing range in Vieques does nothing in the way of providing jobs.

Rep. James V. Hansen (R-Utah) chimed in with another jarring quote: He said on NPR that he didn't think that Puerto Ricans should get any special treatment. "They sit down there on welfare and very few of them paying taxes, got a sweetheart deal."

Perhaps the most unseemly and surely the most untimely display of all came at a House Armed Services Committee hearing, where members pounded on the new secretary of the Navy, Gordon England, the way the Navy planes pound on the landscape of Vieques. It was England's task to defend the witless Bush edict. He was accused of practically everything but treason for letting Puerto Ricans believe they are entitled to the citizens' right to petition the government, which is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and at the heart of the holiday we celebrate this week.

No one defended Bush's decision. Nor did anyone mention that Navy authorities could easily find substitute sites, or that the amphibious landings it wants to practice there are obsolete. There's no storming ashore any more, because the increased range of missile batteries makes it impossible to decant troops on the beach. Retired Adm. Eugene Carroll, who is, lamentably, leaving the Center for Defense Information, knows all about it. It doesn't seem too much to expect Armed Services Committee members to check such basic information out.

Rep. Gutierrez says that what he did on the beautiful island of Vieques was totally in the American tradition, going back to the Boston Tea Party. "That was civil disobedience," he says defiantly. Congress should read the Constitution over the holiday.

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