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New York Daily News

Cries Are Falling On Deaf Ears

Puerto Ricans Vote On Vieques; Bush Remains Quiet


July 31, 2001
Copyright © 2001 New York Daily News. All Rights Reserved.

The people of Vieques have spoken but President Bush, the Republicans in Congress and the Pentagon brass keep hearing only what they want to hear.

In a historic and defiant referendum organized by the Puerto Rican government, 68% of Vieques residents voted Sunday for an immediate end to more than six decades of Navy bombing practice on their tiny island.

It was a record turnout for a Puerto Rican referendum - more than 80% of eligible voters flocked to the polls - yet those who want the Navy to stay were only able to muster a bare 30% of the vote.

The biggest loser - with less than 2% - was the option already adopted by Bush - for the Navy to withdraw from Vieques in May 2003 but to continue using inert bombs until then.

"It was a landslide victory," said a jubilant Roberto Rabin, a leader of anti-Navy protests during the past two years.

Some immediately sought to downplay the vote as "nonbinding" and therefore insignificant.

At the White House, Bush aides scrambled yesterday to deflect the stunning defeat for the President's plan, originally fashioned by former President Bill Clinton before he left the White House.

"These matters are not only decided by referendum, but they are decided by a variety of factors that represent a balanced approach," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.

The President agrees that the Vieques range must be closed, but he wants "a seamless transition so our military can be the best-trained it can be," Fleischer said.

Political punishment

Conservative Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, are already threatening to punish Puerto Rico for its vote by amending the new defense authorization bill and closing all military facilities in the Caribbean commonwealth.

Now, let me get this straight.

A referendum called by the Puerto Rican government is "nonbinding" because Congress didn't approve of it beforehand. But a referendum that Congress did authorize for this coming November in Vieques , one which does not include the option that received 68% of the vote on Sunday, that one is binding.

In other words, the only referendum that counts is the one that doesn't include what the vast majority of Puerto Ricans want.

Such is the colonial democracy that Congress has historically offered to Puerto Rico . In such a sham democracy, the votes of Puerto Ricans count only as long as Washington approves of the decision.

Then there is this other argument, the one the Pentagon keeps repeating, that the Vieques firing range is indispensable to military readiness because it is one of the few places on Earth where U.S. troops can simulate all aspects of live combat.

Another tangle of twisted logic.

Military superpower

We are in an age where the United States is the world's unquestioned military superpower. Our nation has now fought two wars, in Iraq and in Kosovo, where battlefield casualties to our troops were negligible. No potential enemy army in the world comes close to ours in fighting capacity or weapons technology. No other military has the stable of foreign bases, the awesome airpower or the vast number of combat troops stationed overseas that we have.

Yet some politicians in Washington keep screaming about this bogeyman of "military readiness." Such people dream, perhaps, of wars where our soldiers incur zero casualties. Such wars do not risk becoming unpopular with the American people since all the death and destruction occurs on the other side.

In this quest for the perfect war, Vieques becomes this indispensable range. The 9,300 people who live there, who risk cancer and others diseases from the bombing, who must live with environmental destruction, turn into obstacles to be overcome the moment they object. The 3.8 million U.S. citizens on the main island of Puerto Rico who dare to question our military must be taught a lesson and punished. Any democratic vote that challenges our military's mission is automatically "nonbinding."

The message Washington keeps sending Puerto Rico is even clearer than the one that came out of Vieques this Sunday.

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