I DON'T mean to sound terribly cynical, but I just don't buy it. All
of a sudden, President Bush says he cares about the people of Vieques -- a
tiny island of 9,400 people off the coast of Puerto Rico?
For 60 years, Navy warships have dropped bombs, spread toxic waste, crushed
coral reefs and endangered the islanders' health. And now Bush says he feels
All I can say is: Querido Puerto Rico, cuidado. My dear Puerto Rico, beware.
If you missed it, President Bush, in Europe this month for his "Blind
Ambition" tour, announced he had decided to end the Navy's training exercises
in Vieques by May 2003.
Pithy as always, Bush said of the people of Vieques: "These are our friends
and neighbors and they don't want us there."
Actually, the people of Vieques are U.S. citizens and what they don't want
are bombs exploding in their collective backyard. Some people call that un-
American. I call it human nature.
So, now the plan is to find an alternate site for the U.S. Navy and the U.S.
Marine to train for the dangerous business of wartime beach assaults. The
trouble is that the hunt for a suitable replacement could take two years or
more, according to U.S. Navy Secretary Gordon England.
Here's where I started to get a little suspicious:
Within hours of announcing that the Navy would be closing shop in 2003,
England mentioned that he'd rather that Congress cancel a citizens' referendum
on the matter, which is scheduled in Vieques for November.
Military training policy, said England, shouldn't be decided by voter
referendum. That would set a "bad precedent." What England does not mention is
that the Navy is expected to lose at the ballot box in November, an outcome
that could prove embarrassing for President Bush.
The truth is that the president's team of political advisers has decided to
wage war against the Vieques activists. Not with bombs and bullets, but with
the flak of politics and public pressure.
For the past few months, the White House has been losing the battle of
public opinion as the arrests of protesters -- some of them with names like
Kennedy and Sharpton -- continue to mount.
Am I suggesting that Bush doesn't care about the people of Vieques? Of
course he cares. He cares very much that Latinos nationwide sympathize -- and
empathize -- with the people of Vieques.
And he cares that in next year's congressional elections, not to mention
the presidential race in 2004, Latino voters will be an increasingly important
And because he cares, Bush has a plan. Let's call it a vast West Wing
First, the White House promises to pull the Navy out of Vieques in a mere
two years. That's supposed to prove he's compassionate. Then, he urges
Congress to cancel the November referendum. If Congress doesn't, Bush figures
he wins either way. A vote to kick the Navy out validates his decision. A vote
to let the Navy stay allows him say, "How can I pull out now? The people have
In the meantime, Bush and company are banking that his announcement to have
the Navy leave Vieques by 2003 will blunt the protesters' momentum and turn
public opinion against them.
What the president doesn't realize is that the Vieques movement is about
much more than the military destruction of the island's once pristine beaches.
The real damage done runs much deeper.
In the past, the people of Vieques have been virtually powerless to fend
off the abuses of the United States. Bombing Vieques not only scarred the
island's beaches, it wounded a proud people's psyche.
But times have changed.
The people of Puerto Rico are now linked politically to the growing clout
of American Latinos from New York to California. And so for the first time
since Puerto Rico's colonization by the United States, its citizens -- its
American citizens -- have real power. And they are willing to use it.
Bush's announcement to end the Vieques operation in 2003 was not an act of
compassion. It was a strategic political move designed to paralyze his
opponents and curry favor with Latinos.
And to that I repeat: Querido Puerto Rico, cuidado. My dear Puerto Rico,
James Garcia is editor and publisher of politicomagazine.com.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle