Main Vieques Navy Range Defender May Head U.S. Military... Acevedo Aide Misleads Puerto Ricans on Ft. Buchanan Issue... Bhatia Putting Own Image on Governor’s Representation in the States

April 8, 2005
Copyright © 2005 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

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Main Vieques Navy Range Defender May Head U.S. Military

The primary U.S. military advocate of continuing the U.S. Navy’s now-closed training range on the island of Vieques, PR may become the nation’s top military officer.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is considering recommending Marine Corps General Peter Pace to President Bush to be the Chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. Pace is currently Vice-Chairman of the "Chiefs" of all four of the nation’s military services.

As the head of Marine Corps forces stationed in the U.S.’ Atlantic coast in 1999, Pace co-authored the Navy Department’s formal case for continued training at the Vieques range after Puerto Ricans demanded its closure. The range was the heart of the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training facility, which included ocean areas extending far off Vieques and was the primary weapons training facility for about half of the nation’s Navy and Marine Corps forces.

According to senior Navy sources, the principle resistance in the Navy Department to closing the Vieques range came from the Marine Corps rather than the Navy. This was because Vieques was the only location the U.S. military had in the Eastern part of the U.S. for amphibious combat practice employing all three tactics used in military invasions from the water: bombing from planes and shelling from ships while Marines storm ashore. Combat amphibious landings are the one military tactic that no other military service than the Marine Corps performs.

The closure of the Vieques range discontinued this training. Training is now conducted with only one or two tactics at a time or with computer simulation substituting for conducting tactics on a live basis. When the Vieques range was closed in May 2003, Navy officials said that they had developed new training methods that were as good as or better than the Vieques training.

They also insisted that closure of the range before the new methods were ready in May 2003 would have resulted in inadequate training, a position that they had held since January 2000.

Supporting the range was the main function of the Navy’s Roosevelt Roads base on the main island of Puerto Rico. That base was closed last year when Puerto Rico’s last governor, Sila Calderon ("commonwealth" party/no national party), tried to pressure the federal government into closing the range before May 2003 and broke a 2000 agreement regarding the closure reached by her predecessor, now Senator Pedro Rossello (statehood/D), with President Bill Clinton and the military.

Reports of Pace’s possible promotion come as leaders of the Congress’s Armed Services committees are recalling their ire over Governor Calderon’s anti-U.S.-P.R. Vieques agreement actions. The actions were supported by Puerto Rico’s current governor, Anibal Acevedo Vila ("commonwealth"), who was then Puerto Rico’s representative to the federal government with a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The recollections were stimulated by lobbying by Puerto Rican representatives for a repeal of the ban on improvements to the Army’s Fort Buchanan in Puerto Rico. The moratorium was enacted into law because of the Vieques range’s closure. Members of Congress reasoned that the closure would free up facilities at Roosevelt Roads, which was in an area where land is less expensive than the area around Ft. Buchanan.

Ft. Buchanan is on a tentative Pentagon list for closure in a major military base closing effort this year. The list is to be sent to a special commission on May 12. The base is considered to be less likely to be closed if the ban on improvements is lifted and long-needed improvements to the base are made.

After the Roosevelt Roads base was closed, the Pentagon last year recommended that the ban on improvements to Ft. Buchanan be lifted since Ft. Buchanan facilities could no longer be moved to Roosevelt Roads. The decision was made in response to a request of the National Guard.

The Guard is the primary user of Ft. Buchanan since the anti-U.S. military atmosphere created by Calderon’s anti-Vieques range efforts helped convince the U.S. Army to move its Southern Command out of Puerto Rico just a few years after the Army, Calderon predecessor Rossello, and Clinton convinced a reluctant Pentagon to move the command there. Pentagon officials had been reluctant because of the cost of operating in Puerto Rico.

The Bush Administration adopted the recommendation to repeal the ban on improvements at Ft. Buchanan in its budget for fiscal year 2006.

Puerto Rico’s representative to the federal government, Resident Commissioner Luis G. Fortuno (statehood/R), has been quietly working with Bush Administration officials and leaders of the Congress’ Defense appropriations subcommittees on funding improvements to the base that could total $30 million in the fiscal year that begins October 1.

Acevedo Aide Misleads Puerto Ricans on Ft. Buchanan Issue

Governor Acevedo’s chief aide in the States, Eduardo Bhatia, however, late Thursday misled Puerto Ricans on the issue.

Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA) Director Bhatia "announced" the earlier Bush Administration proposal that the annual Defense Authorization bill lift the ban on construction at Ft. Buchanan. More problematically, however, he said that the proposal proved that there were no ill feelings left over the Calderon/Acevedo actions against the 2000 Federal-Commonwealth Vieques agreement.

In fact, however, the ill feelings remain and are threatening approval of the proposal to lift the ban on Ft. Buchanan improvements. The discontent is coming from leaders of congressional armed services authorization committees that would have to approve the legislation. (Congress’ authorization committees set policy, including the authorization of appropriations -- actual funding. Appropriations committees generally allocate funding within the levels set by authorization committees.)

Further, Bhatia has been aware of the contrary congressional views despite his statements Thursday to Puerto Rico reporters. Bhatia was advised of the opposition by his PRFAA legislative staff before he spoke to reporters.

Authorization committee leaders -- even those reluctant themselves to lift the ban -- say that the senator who will really have to be convinced if it is to be lifted is James Inhofe (R-OK). Inhofe was the author of the moratorium. He also was the member of the U.S. Senate who was most upset by Calderon and Acevedo’s actions contrary to the Vieques agreement.

Another potential handicap to the Puerto Rican effort to retain Ft. Buchanan is that the member of the U.S. House of Representatives who was most upset by Calderon and Acevedo’s actions contrary to the Vieques agreement is on the eight-member commission that will finally determine what bases are closed, former Representative James Hansen (R-UT).

Bhatia Putting Own Image on Governor’s Representation in the States

Acevedo aide Bhatia is making major changes in the representation of the governor’s offices in the States.

Not the least of the changes is assuming an unprecedented high personal role as PRFAA Director.

  • Bhatia will have a swearing-in ceremony to which a large number of people have been invited and for which Acevedo will fly to Washington. The inauguration is being planned to take place in a U.S. House of Representatives reception room. It is scheduled to be held March 26. Plans for the event far exceed in scope the swearing in of even the most senior staff of the President of the U.S. The location of the event is particularly interesting as Puerto Rico’s overall representative to the federal government, the resident commissioner, holds a seat in the U.S. House.
  • The "About PRFAA" section of the offices’ Internet Website has been changed to be an extensive biography of Bhatia rather than an explanation about the governor’s offices in the States.
  • Bhatia has increased PRFAA’s Washington headquarters public relations staff. There are now at least six staff members in the communications office -- more than in the offices of many U.S. senators, let along representatives.
  • There has been an even greater increase in PRFAA’s legislative staff. Bhatia has at least eight congressional aides — more legislative assistants than some U.S. representatives. In addition, he assembled another four-member legal team.
  • At the same time, Bhatia has decreased the number of personnel working on the offices’ primary function -- obtaining assistance for Puerto Rico from federal agencies. PRFAA identifies only one person as working to obtain federal grants. Presswise, obtaining grants is a low-profile activity.
  • Other personnel cuts are being made in PRFAA’s offices in the States — which also do not bring much attention to the PRFAA director. Curiously, the PRFAA Website under Bhatia says that one of the offices’ primary missions is to "advance the well-being of Puerto Ricans . . . on the mainland." PRFAA’s public services to citizens of the States have become controversial, however. Activities such as operating a summer day camp for children, training groups of citizens of the States how to apply for government grants --- potentially in competition with Puerto Rican organizations, registering tens of thousands of citizens of the States with no connection to Puerto Rico to vote in the States, and taking positions on local legislation in the States have been questioned.

These changes and others fuel speculation that Bhatia is using PRFAA as a springboard to the "commonwealth" party candidacy for resident commissioner in 2008. Bhatia served one term in Puerto Rico’s Senate before losing two races for mayor of San Juan, PR, the last in 2004.

Bhatia’s Website also provides "commonwealth" party propaganda about Puerto Rico. For example, it tells readers that the "Commonwealth has complete fiscal autonomy." The statement ignores the fact that the federal government has extended several taxes to the territory and federal officials have repeatedly said that the federal government has unlimited authority to tax there.

In fact, Puerto Rico exercises the same "fiscal autonomy" as other U.S. territories and "fiscal autonomy" similar to that which States possess: the power to impose local taxes.

An interesting omission from Bhatia’s Website is any explanation or, even, listing of Puerto Rico’s federal issues.

Bhatia is also making major changes in the governor’s external lobbying team in Washington.

The one lobbyist that Acevedo said that he would definitely retain from predecessor Calderon is former Republican National Committee Chairman Charlie Black. Black’s main functions are to counter the influence of Puerto Rico Republicans in the White House of Republican President George Bush and to stop statehood and independence party initiatives in the Congress through his main congressional contact, Senator Trent Lott (R-MS).

Black’s Government of Puerto Rico contracts — said to be worth $100,000 a month — will reportedly be increased. A major challenge will be countering the influence of Resident Commissioner Fortuno who has close ties with U.S. House leaders and was personally asked for campaign help last year by President Bush.

Another conservative Republican is also continuing to lobby for the "commonwealth" team. He is former U.S. Representative Toby Roth. He helps arrange appointments and argues against U.S. statehood being an option for Puerto Rico on the ground that the people predominantly speak Spanish and half do not speak English.

Another firm that Acevedo is expected to continue from Calderon is Winston & Strawn. A source reports that its Puerto Rico government contracts worth $1 million a year will be increased.

After curiously announcing last week that he would hire more lobbyists to defeat proposals in President Bush’s 2006 budget that had already been defeated in the U.S. Senate or that included increases for Puerto Rico, Bhatia this week said that he would dispense with the services of two of Calderon’s main lobbying firms for cost reasons.

One firm is PattonBoggs, which has prominent Democratic Party connections. PattonBoggs reportedly was able to bill Puerto Rico agencies $1 million a year. It is expected to retain some Puerto Rico government contracts, however.

Sources indicate that the major cuts in PattonBoggs spending were being made to increase fees for Black and Winston & Strawn, which includes a friend of both Bhatia and Acevedo as a San Juan-based partner, Francisco Pavia. One source confided that there had been competition among the firms during the Calderon Administration, particularly between Winston & Strawn and PattonBoggs. One of the areas in contention was in seeking transportation funding.

Both firms bear some of the blame for the failure of the Calderon/Acevedo Administration’s major federal initiative: tax exemptions for profits that companies based in the States receive from subsidiaries in the territory. A PattonBoggs lawyer helped devise the scheme, which contradicted deliberately-established federal tax policy and was ‘Dead on Arrival’ in Congress and the Bush Administration. Winston & Strawn developed misleading arguments for the proposal, causing congressional reviewers to further oppose it.

Apparently totally out as a Puerto Rico government lobbying firm is U.S. Strategies. The firm had been hired to obtain support for the tax proposal from then Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD). Daschle did not support the tax proposal and lost re-election last year.

It is unclear whether Acevedo will keep another major contractor, Edleman Worldwide, on the payroll. Edleman was primarily hired because former Deputy Chief of Staff to President Reagan Michael Deaver was an officer.

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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