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New York Daily News

Go Or Stay? Vieques Must Say

April 10, 2001
Copyright © 2001 New York Daily News. All Rights Reserved.

Yesterday, Gov. Pataki led a delegation of officials to Vieques for a fact-finding mission on how the U.S. military presence has affected the 10,000 people who live there. After meeting with Navy officers and local officials on the island off Puerto Rico , Pataki talked with worried children who showed him paintings depicting their home as a polluted place where planes drop bombs.

Afterward, Pataki said: "I listened to the Navy. I listened to the children. And I listened to the people of Vieques . It's time for the bombing to stop."

Sounds noble. But it ignores something: the wishes of the people of Vieques as those wishes are to be expressed in an official referendum in November. That, not individual appeals and photo ops with kiddies, should be the deciding factor.

The Navy has used Vieques for bombing exercises for 60 years. But it became a political issue in New York after a civilian employee of the Navy was killed at the site by an errant bomb in 1999.

Thus far, the Bush administration has gone along with an agreement reached last year under the Clinton administration: The people of the island will vote. If they say the military can stay, Vieques will receive $50 million for economic development. If they vote no, the military will leave by 2003. It was, and is, a sensible way to deal with an emotional and highly politicized issue.

Some have accused Pataki of pandering for Hispanic votes, but the truth is he was approached by Puerto Rican Gov. Sila Calderon, hospital union chief Dennis Rivera and other prominent Puerto Ricans who asked him to talk to the President on their behalf. So in Washington last month, Pataki and Calderon met with Bush to discuss the matter. As a result of that meeting, the Navy temporarily halted the bombing.

Whatever transpires, the will of the people must prevail. And there is no better way to define that will than by a full and fair vote. Perhaps that vote can be moved up. Perhaps the withdrawal - if so desired - ought to be accelerated too. Those are issues to discuss.

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