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The Tucson Citizen

Bush Cave-In On Vieques Panders To Hispanics

By Richard Salvatierra

July 13, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Tucson Citizen. All Rights Reserved.

When he was campaigning for the presidency, George W. Bush said one of his priorities would be to shore up combat readiness and provide all of the armed services with support that had been lacking during the Clinton presidency.

However, in proposing that the U.S. Navy abandon its live- ammunition training range on Puerto Rico's Vieques Island, Bush has caved in - and no doubt done so for a purely political reason:

To try to strengthen his support among Hispanics in this country, siding with what has been a handful of protesters on the island, many of whom don't even inhabit the place.

Cuando estaba en campaña para la presidencia, George W. Bush dijo que una de sus prioridades sería apuntalar la aptitud de combate y proveer todos los auxilios armados con el apoyo que había faltado durante la presidencia de Clinton.

Sin embargo, al proponer que la Marina de Estados Unidos abandone su actual campo de entrenamiento con pertrechos en la isla Vieques de Puerto Rico, Bush ha modificado su parecer y sin ninguna duda lo ha hecho por un motivo puramente político:

Tratar de fortalecer su apoyo entre los hispanos en este país, uniéndose con lo que ha sido un puñado de manifestantes de la isla, muchos de los cuales todavía no habitan en el lugar.

Bush, if he is thinking about 2004, may gain votes among Puerto Ricans in New York and Florida, but my view is that the vast majority of Hispanics in this country couldn't care less about Vieques one way or the other. Hence, a basically wasted, but patently cynical, move by the president.

On the other hand, Vieques has become a trendy cause, especially for liberals and the politically correct crowd. And it is no surprise that a drumbeat of anti-Navy sentiment has developed, led, for example, by New York Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The flap over Vieques began in April 1999 after a Navy aviator accidentally bombed an observation tower and killed a Puerto Rican security guard. It was the first such accident in the 60-year history of the Navy's use of that particular training site.

Interestingly, the father of David Sanes, the person killed in the accident, publicly has accused protesters of capitalizing on his son's death to push their political (anti-American) agenda, and in passing has expressed support for the Navy to continue using Vieques for training purposes.

As another aside, the Vieques range is approximately nine miles from the nearest town, but the U.S. Defense Department has more than 50 live-fire ranges and some are even closer to cities than nine miles. Fort Sill, Okla., for example, is only two miles away from a gunnery range.

Although nothing of the sort was heard prior to the April accident, the Navy is being accused of causing all sorts of health problems and havoc: The exercises have increased infant mortality on the island; the blasts have precipitated an epidemic of thickened heart membranes, now amusingly called a "vibroacoustic disease"; and so forth. One man complained to a reporter that the shellings have caused him to lose his hair.

Hundreds on the island already are lining up for compensation.

All of this is nonsense, of course, but it does fuel emotions, on both sides of the issue, and some U.S. congressmen who are upset with Bush and the protesters, for example, are threatening to reconsider the $14 billion annual direct assistance to Puerto Rico .

Isolated backlash or not in Congress, we may be assured that American support for Puerto Rico and its four million residents, who are U.S. citizens, will not be changing.

It was during his recent trip to Europe that Bush, at a press conference, surprised everyone with the statement that "the Navy ought to find someplace (other than Vieques ) to conduct its exercises... ." And he added that "these are our friends and neighbors, and they don't want us there," a comment that can only be regarded, in my view, as not very smart, but also furthermore suggestive of a nation that will buckle under any criticism.

More specifically, Bush said the Navy would abandon Vieques by 2003. This had to be all in haste because he obviously was overlooking the fact that a referendum has been set for November 6, at which time the nearly 10,000 inhabitants of Vieques will vote on whether they want the Navy to stay.

The referendum's results should in no way be considered binding for the United States. Furthermore, Washington might well be surprised by the vote; it could favor continuance of the Navy exercises.

As for Bush, he lost his policy compass regarding Vieques . And I seriously doubt he has gained any points with Hispanics across the country, which no doubt has been his prime motivation.

Richard Salvatierra is a Tucsonan and a retired career U.S. foreign service officer. His column appears each Friday.

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