‘With warmest regards, Sila’

by John Marino

September 20, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOFor the second time this month, Gov. Calderón told the Puerto Rican public that she has asked President Bush to put in writing his verbal pledge to withdraw the Navy from Vieques by May 2003.

But this time around, the governor made sure to put down her request in writing -- in a letter she sent to the president on Tuesday.

Earlier this month, during a trip to Vieques to inaugurate an island maternity ward, the governor said that she has asked Bush to formalize his pledge in writing. But she was vague about the specifics of when and how she made the request.

This time her request was crystal clear: "It would be proper for both the United States and Puerto Rico to formalize this process. At this point, the lack of a written commitment has made it easier for rumors and doubts to propagate here," Calderón wrote.

What’s not so clear is why she decided to write the letter now, and what effect the letter could have on how the larger issue of Vieques plays out.

For weeks, community, political and religious leaders have been badgering the governor to call on Bush to set down his pledge in writing.

The push comes in the midst of a letter writing campaign in which a few dozen Congressmen have called on Bush to turn his pledge to end Navy war games on Vieques by next May into an executive order.

Calderón has steadfastly refused. Some reports have suggested that the her administration was quietly discouraging the letter writing campaign by members of Congress, suggesting that it might be counter-productive.

The closest Calderón has come to joining the quest for Bush to put his pledge in writing was earlier this month in Vieques, when she said she had already asked the president to put down his pledge in writing. But her comments left many observers scratching their heads and wondering aloud where or how she might have asked the president to do this. (Interestingly, the governor, who in her letter to Bush recounted their two brief meetings, makes no mention of these previous efforts.)

What pushed Calderón to ask for Bush to put his pledge in writing was not the lobbying to join the letter writing campaign. It was because of increasing doubts expressed locally over whether a Navy exit was still likely, given a possible war between the United States and Iraq.

On the day she wrote her letter, El Nuevo Día -- the newspaper of biggest circulation in Puerto Rico and one widely seen as an ally of Calderón -- suggested on its front page that the Navy would continue training on Vieques beyond the exit date.

It ran a photo of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld under the headline: "Rumsfeld: The Navy to continue on Vieques."

It then paraphrased Rumsfeld saying that the Pentagon plans to "continue its operations on Vieques in a manner consistent with our needs and obligations."

It was a reprehensible front page, with all the earmarks of irresponsible journalism, since nothing Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news briefing on Monday could be taken to mean the exit date was being put off.

Rumsfeld, responding to a reporter’s question about alleged police inaction on Vieques, said he would look into charges that the Puerto Rico police were lax in preventing "attacks" by protesters against military personnel during the current round of Vieques exercises.

"Vieques is an important location for us, and we intend to continue to operate on a basis that's consistent with our obligations, and we hope others will continue to cooperate in a manner that's consistent with their obligations," Rumsfeld said.

Never did he mention the exit date or suggested that the Pentagon’s plans had changed. On the contrary, Pentagon officials continue to insist they are sticking to the May 2003 date.

Charlie Black, the Calderón administration’s chief White House lobbyist, told The San Juan Star Thursday that Calderón’s letter had been prompted by local misconceptions brought on by the Defense secretary’s remarks.

The blame for the local misconceptions, however, could be more appropriately placed with El Nuevo Día than anything Rumsfeld said.

And that raises the question: should a policy be changed because of bad reporting? Couldn’t the governor simply address those concerns locally instead of writing a letter to Bush?

The letter may not be a bad thing, although political opponents are saying it is.

New Progressive Party President Carlos Pesquera said that the letter could be "counterproductive" because of the Iraq situation. "An action such as the letter by the governor of any state would be considered out-of-tune and insensitive to today's reality in the United States."

Calderón’s missive is carefully constructed. She takes pains to express her "wholehearted support" in the "battle against terrorism" and presents four alternatives that Bush could pursue to clarify what he has verbally pledged.

They are to make public the Navy's transition plan for relocating to an alternative site, to issue "a written confirmation" that the exercises would end by May, to create a joint transition committee or to endorse the creation of a local committee.

It’s not a bad letter. It’s one that could have been written at any time since Bush said he would order the Navy off Vieques during a Geneva press conference in the summer of 2001. And that’s the problem with the letter.

Calderón has obviously thought it a better strategy not to press Bush on putting the exit date in writing.

One reason for this is probably the repeated stated intentions of military and administration officials -- such as Navy Secretary Gordon England -- that the Navy would indeed leave when Bush said it would.

The post-Sept. 11 political mood was no doubt also part of Calderón’s strategy of taking the president at his word.

Chucking that strategy aside because of a sensationalist news report does not appear to be good public policy.

There may be no danger in it, but then again the president could say "no" or nothing at all.

And that would do little to remove local doubts about whether the Navy will really leave Vieques next year.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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