GARCIA: Bush vs. Vieques, The Next Move

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 their pain?

All I can say is: Querido Puerto Rico, cuidado. My dear Puerto Rico, beware.

If you missed it, President Bush, in Europe recently for his Blind Ambition tour, announced he had decided to end the Navy's training exercises in Vieques by May of 2003.

Pithy as always, Bush, explaining his decision, 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 back yard. Some people call that un-American. I call it human nature.

So the plan now is to find an alternate site for the Navy and Marines to train for the admittedly dangerous business of wartime beach assaults. Trouble is that the hunt for a suitable replacement could take two years or more, according to Navy Secretary Gordon England.

The Navy's critics, meanwhile, are supposed to rest easy knowing that Mr. England already has promised to appoint a panel of sage military and technical experts to find a new beach to bomb as soon as possible.

Here's where I started to get a little suspicious.

You see, it just so happens that within hours of announcing that the Navy would be closing shop in 2003, Mr. England mentioned that he'd prefer if Congress canceled a citizens referendum on the matter, which is scheduled in Vieques for November.

Military training policy, he said, shouldn't be decided by voter referendum. According to England, that would set a "bad precedent" In other words, Mr. England believes the will of the people should not get in the way of the will of our military.

What Mr. England fails to 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 advisors has decided that the time has come to wage war against the Vieques movement. Not with bombs and bullets, but with the flak of politics and public pressure.

For the past several 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, continues 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 very much that during next year's congressional elections, not to mention the presidential race in 2004, Latino voters will be an increasingly important swing vote.

I think Bush has a plan. Let's call it a vast West Wing Conspiracy.

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 they don'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 spoken."

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. (That turn of events would then allow the Pentagon to keep bombing Vieques indefinitely -- all the while earnestly insisting that they're still looking for a suitable alternative.)

What the President doesn't realize is that the Vieques movement is about so much more than the military destruction of the island's once pristine beaches. The real damage done runs much deeper.

In years past, the people of Vieques -- like their compatriots throughout Puerto Rico -- 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 things 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're willing to use it.

Bush's announcement to end the Vieques operation in 2003 was not an act of compassion. It was a chess move designed to paralyze his opponents and curry favor with Latinos.

And to that I repeat: Querido Puerto Rico, cuidado. My dear Puerto Rico, beware.

James Garcia is editor and publisher of politicomagazine.com. E-mail the writer at Politico1@aol.com.

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