Cry for me, Puerto Rico

The next big issue after the clemency controversy is the growing pressure to throw the U.S. Navy off its test bombing range.

Published September 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Hispanic Heritage Month hasn't been kind to Hillary Rodham Clinton this year. September is normally the month when Democrats celebrate their ties to the Latino community -- the Gores, for example, danced salsa at an event this time last year -- but no one around the first lady is in a partying mood these days.

Ever since Clinton infuriated leaders of New York's Puerto Rican community
with her surprise statement opposing her husband's clemency offer for
radical pro-independence prisoners, her Latino allies have mutinied against her. As a result, she's spent much of the last two weeks in damage-control mode.

She's tried everything -- shmoozing at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus gala; standing shoulder to shoulder with Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, one of the city's top Puerto Rican officials, to denounce the GOP's tax bill; and working into her speeches her long-ago efforts to help register Hispanic voters in the Rio Grande Valley.

Even as she's tried to repair the damage from the clemency debacle, Clinton has faced another Puerto Rican political issue that is set to explode on the national stage this week: the status of the U.S. Navy's bombing range on a tiny island called Vieques.

At a New York press conference last week, the crowd burst into laughter
when Hillary tried to avoid answering a question concerning Vieques.
"One thing I want to do is consult with a number of people," she said
with a nervous titter, referring to the lack of time she spent talking
to Latino leaders before coming out against the clemency offer. "I am
heavy into consultations right now."

She better be. On Wednesday, the House and Senate Armed Forces
Committees will hold the first of a number of hearings that will no doubt
keep the questions coming. Already, a number of U.S. politicians of various stripes are on the record as wanting to force the Navy from the island.

"What is unfortunate, I find, is that while we are focused on whether
or not [the prisoners] should be released, the real issue here is
Vieques," the Rev. Jesse Jackson recently said in a television appearance. "Should the U.S. own Vieques? If Indonesia should not own East Timor and if the U.S. should not own the Panama Canal, we should not own Vieques ... The real issue today is our Navy should leave Vieques as an occupying force. We should not be a colonial power in Puerto Rico in 1999."

In August, Jackson visited the island and held a press conference about the issue with Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rosello. Jackson pledged to rally Hispanic voters across the country and make Vieques a major campaign 2000 issue.

Why now?

The pearl-white sands and turquoise waters of Vieques, a tiny inhabited strip
just off the coast of Puerto Rico, may seem a bizarre place for campaign
2000 electioneering. From a distance the island looks like just another
bucolic Caribbean getaway.

But for five decades, the U.S. military has occupied more than two-thirds of
the 22-mile island, bombing and shelling the western tip around 190 days a
year. It's the only place where the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marines all
conduct live-fire training exercises within close range of a significant
civilian population.

In April, the Navy stopped all bombing after a pilot mistakenly dropped two 500-pound bombs on an observation tower, killing civilian security guard David Sanes. It is the only reported civilian death linked to the exercises in the history of the Navy's presence here, but it was enough for the vast majority of Puerto Ricans -- those for statehood and those for independence alike -- to unite in their efforts to push the Navy out.

Demands that the Navy leave have resonated all the way to Washington. The White House has appointed a Pentagon panel to evaluate the controversy and a decision is expected any day now. If the panel finds for the Navy, the Puerto Rican attorney general has threatened to sue the federal government.

As Democrats court the influential Hispanic vote this election cycle,
Vieques is poised to become a cause célèbre.

"I can assure you that once we leave this place and take our case to
the people of New York in great numbers, and Illinois and Texas and
California and Florida, this issue will be a critical matter on the
agenda for 2000," Jackson said during the press conference he held with
Gov. Rosello.

Although Republicans in Washington generally support the Navy remaining
on the island, the issue has attracted a whole host of strange
bedfellows. Democratic Sen. Chuck Shumer and Republican Sen. Frank
Murkowski, as well as Democratic Reps. Luis Gutierrez, Robert Menendez
and Nydia Velasquez and GOP Reps. Don Young and Dan Burton, have all
called for the Navy to leave.

Last week Murkowski, R-Alaska, introduced a bill that would give the Puerto Rican government control of the Navy-owned land used for bombing exercises on the island. "It's time to return this tiny island to its people," Murkowski said in a speech on the Senate floor.

But fellow Republican James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed
Forces Committee's panel on military readiness, threatened to shut down
a major Navy base in Puerto Rico unless political leaders back off and
allow resumption of target practice on Vieques. The base, Roosevelt
Roads, pumps $300 million a year into the local economy, and the loss
would be a painful one for Puerto Rico.

The chairman of the Republican National Committee links Clinton's
clemency offer to threats of violence over the Vieques issue, noting
that a self-proclaimed leader of the Puerto Rican group Boricua Popular
Army came out of hiding recently to threaten that if the U.S. Navy
resumes exercises in Vieques, it will "face the consequences."

"Bill Clinton's misguided act of ethnic pandering on behalf of his
wife's New York political ambitions is having precisely the effect that
every law enforcement agency said it would," charged RNC Chairman Jim
Nicholson. "It's reawakening a tiny, but violent terrorist movement."

In standard form, presidential contenders have yet to trudge into the
debate in any real way. In late August the Associated Press reported
that Vice President Al Gore pledged to support the efforts to force the Navy to leave
in a telephone call with Gov. Rosello. But when
asked about it, Gore's spokesman said the vice president does not
discuss personal telephone conversations.

Some members of the George W. Bush camp have also met with Puerto Rican officials about the matter, but he hasn't ventured an opinion yet.

Although Hillary Clinton has desperately tried to avoid coming down one
way or the other on the matter, her would-be opponent, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani waded cautiously into the turbulent waters last week. He urged New York Democrats to stop pressuring President Clinton for a quick decision on whether the Navy should leave Vieques after nearly six decades there.

"I think the president of the United States should come to a decision
on it after he gets his report back," Giuliani urged, referring to
recommendations expected from the Pentagon task force. The
panels is expected to recommend keeping Vieques open for only five more

As the mayor urged patience, a New York City Council committee began pushing for a resolution demanding that the Navy leave. Fifteen New York politicians of
Puerto Rican descent, including U.S. Reps. Jose Serrano and Velasquez,
were busy drumming up support for the House and Senate hearings.

"We believe your present hearings on the president's clemency toward
the Puerto Rican political prisoners focuses on the symptom rather than
the fundamental problem that this Senate has failed to address: the
ultimate status of Puerto Rico," the legislators wrote to Senate
Majority Leader Trent Lott.

The Vieques issue, they argue, is directly linked to the unresolved
nature of Puerto Rico's status after nearly 100 years as a U.S.
territory. For the past 47 years it's been a commonwealth. Puerto Ricans
are U.S. citizens and subject to military service, but they pay no
federal taxes, cannot vote in presidential elections and are represented
in Congress by a delegate with no floor-voting powers.

If they composed a state with real congressional representation, they'd have more power to protect their citizens and force the Navy to behave more responsibly or leave.

For years, Puerto Ricans' anger over the Navy's occupation of Vieques
and their status as a commonwealth in general has simmered under the
surface. But since Sanes' accidental death, Puerto Ricans of every political stripe
have united to demand that the Navy either leave or stop their target
practice altogether.

Since days after the death, hundreds of protesters have illegally camped out on the western tip of the island designated for dropping live fire, precluding the Navy from resuming bombing. Elaborate murals and spray-painted signs proclaiming "Fuera Marina Vieques" -- Navy out of Vieques -- now dot the island.

One protester, Puerto Rican Sen. Ruben Berrios, leader of the Puerto
Rican Independence Party, has camped out on the ordnance-strewn beaches
of the live-fire zone for more that to 100 days now. He vows to remain
until the Navy decides to withdraw.

"Mr. Clinton can go into the next millennium as a protector of the
ecology or he can be one of the dictators of his age," says Berrios, who
like Clinton graduated from Georgetown University and Yale Law School.
"The president cannot extricate himself from this situation -- the
pressure is too great in all of Puerto Rico."

Since the early '40s, Vieques has served as a training center for U.S. forces based in the North Atlantic. Troops trained here have been
deployed in every conflict since World War II, including Vietnam, the
Persian Gulf War and Kosovo.

Navy spokesman Roberto Nelson worries that unless the Navy can resume
practice, the troops scheduled to train here will not be prepared to
face combat.

"It's not a game," warns Nelson, who works at the Roosevelt Roads Naval
Station on Puerto Rico. "In the military the penalty you pay for
improper training is people die."

But there is another reason that the Navy doesn't want to close
down operations on Vieques: the money it generates from other countries
who also use it for training their militaries. Up until early August, the Navy advertised the "Atlantic Weapons Training Facility"
on a Navy Web site, promoting the "one-stop shopping" and "scheduled as
requested" advantages of the area and that the "ideal moderate tropical
climate permits year round ops with practically no cancellations."

When the Puerto Rican government discovered the Web site and raised questions
about it, the Navy shut it down.

Anti-Navy sentiment continues to reverberate throughout Puerto Rico.
Walk down any street in Vieques and you will overhear impassioned
discussions about the latest developments in the ongoing controversy.
Citizens are constantly wondering what the Navy's next move will be, and
allegations fly about a rumored epidemic of cancer many islanders
believe the constant bombing has caused.

Talk of cancer is nothing new. A study conducted by the government of
Puerto Rico in 1997 found 482 cases of cancer between 1960 and 1989, a
rate that is 27 percent higher than any other municipality in Puerto Rico.

To make matters worse, the Navy has recently admitted to using napalm and uranium-tipped bombs on the island after years of denying it. Investigators from a federal cancer-monitoring agency, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, are now investigating. The inquiry could take six months and
delay any kind of White House action or involvement, which means the
issue could still be playing itself out in the middle of campaign 2000.

In the long run, Vieques may well make the clemency controversy seem like a footnote, but it doesn't necessarily have to become another political pitfall in the first lady's quest for the Senate. If Hillary plays her cards right, Vieques and all the thorny issues that go along with it could provide a wonderful opportunity to win back the good graces of her Hispanic brethren in New York.

Of course, that depends on her husband's next move and the political fallout it causes. Will he or won't he side with Puerto Rico this time? And what will be her response? Only their pollsters know for sure. Either way, you can bet
Hillary will do a little more consulting this time around.

By Susan Crabtree

Susan Crabtree writes for Roll Call.

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