NOT LONG AGO, Vieques was a small, pretty island in the Caribbean that the US Navy has been quietly bombing for 60 years. Now, thanks to an indecisive decision by President Bush, a pigheaded performance by Navy brass, and brutish behavior by Navy police - many of them strip-search specialists - Vieques has become world famous.
It is a rallying point for advocates of civil rights, human rights, and the environment. It has become a flashpoint between right and left. It has activated members of two prominent political dynasties, the Cuomos and the Kennedys, and it could be an issue in the New York governor's race.
On Friday in San Juan, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who joined thousands of Puerto Ricans in protest of the naval exercises, will be tried in federal court. He will be represented by none other than former New York governor Mario Cuomo, the lately silent golden voice of the Democrats. Cuomo's son Andrew is married to Bobby Kennedy's sister Kerry. Andrew is a candidate for governor, and New York's Republican governor, George Pataki, is heavily in sympathy with the Vieques protest.
Bobby Kennedy is charged with trespassing. He will be tried with two confederates, Dennis Rivera, president of the largest health-care union in the country, and actor Edward James Olmos. All three say Navy police put them in dog kennels overnight and deprived them of counsel on the grounds that they were not arrested, only ''detained.''
None of the hullabaloo can be helping the Bush administration with its all-out overtures to the Hispanic vote. The House Hispanic Caucus, after publication of New York Times columnist Bob Herbert's vivid account of the manhandling and abuse inflicted on peaceful protesters, met recently on the Hill. One victim was Representative Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, who was literally kicked around by Navy policemen even though a video shows him following all orders. One uniformed zealot put a foot on the congressman's neck and told him to put his face in the dirt. When some protesters told the guard that Gutierrez was a congressman, the guard laughed.
Karl Rove, the crafty strategist who helped steer Bush into the Oval Office, is particularly proprietary of the Hispanic vote, but he was plainly torn between new friends and old: The right can't stand uppity little commonwealths who have the nerve to tell the military they don't want the racket of bombs and shells - or the ensuing contamination.
Bush's inconclusive conclusion about Vieques was issued during his stop in Goteborg, Sweden, on June 14. What the president said, in effect, was that using the island for target practice was a rotten thing to do to friends and neighbors - and that we're going to keep doing it for only two more years. Those getting arrested to stop the bombing now were no more infuriated than those who never want it to stop at all.
The tone of the public debate was set by the far-right senator from Oklahoma, James Inhofe. He called Puerto Rican protesters ''ungrateful, myopic, and misinformed.'' He later characterized the protesters as ''Hollywood publicity-seekers or frustrated New York City political activists.'' He exhorted the people of Vieques to be like the people of Fort Sill, who welcome military installations. Fort Sill contributes greatly to the local economy. The Navy firing range in Vieques does nothing in the way of providing jobs.
Perhaps the most unseemly and surely the most untimely display of all came at a House Armed Services Committee hearing, where members pounded on the new secretary of the Navy, Gordon England, the way the Navy planes pound on the landscape of Vieques. It was England's task to defend the witless Bush edict. He was accused of practically everything but treason for letting Puerto Ricans believe they are entitled to the right of citizens to petition the government, which is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and at the heart of the holiday we celebrate this week.
No one defended Bush's decision. Nor did anyone mention that naval authorities could easily find substitute sites or that the amphibious landing they want to practice there is obsolete. There's no storming ashore any more, because the increased range of missile batteries makes it impossible to decant troops on the beach. Retired Admiral Eugene Carroll, who is, lamentably, leaving the Center for Defense Information, knows all about it. It doesn't seem too much to expect Armed Services Committee members to check such basic information out.
Representative Gutierrez says that what he did on the beautiful island of Vieques was totally in the American tradition going back to the Boston Tea Party. ''That was civil disobedience,'' he says defiantly. Congress should read the Constitution over the holiday.
Mary McGrory is a syndicated columnist.
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