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The Star-Ledger

Why Pataki Bombed In Vieques

By Paul Mulshine

April 22, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Star-Ledger. All Rights Reserved.

Latin America is my favorite part of the world. I've traveled to many countries, and everywhere I've gone I've seen the same phenomenon. In Mexico, in El Salvador, in Guatemala, in Nicaragua, people are lined up for blocks at the U.S. Embassy seeking visas to enter America.

Well, not everywhere. In Puerto Rico, they can just get on the plane. No customs, no questions asked. Good for them - but is it too much to ask that in return for that and the many other privileges of U.S. citizenship they devote about four ten-thousandths of their territory to the national defense?

Evidently it is, if the current controversy over Vieques , a small island off Puerto Rico 's eastern coast, is any indication. The U.S. Navy bombing range there occupies a fraction of the Puerto Rican land mass - so small as to be inconsequential. And not only is the range small, it's much farther from population centers than similar bombing ranges, including one right here in crowded New Jersey.

Here is how many people live within an 8-mile radius of the Warren Grove bombing range in Ocean County: About 50,000. Here is how many people live within an 8-mile radius of the Vieques bombing range: zero. The Navy owns most of Vieques, and there is a large buffer zone between the practice area and the town.

In Warren Grove, by contrast, people live just 2 miles from where the bombs fall. Yet that bombing range in Warren Grove is not a political issue. Why not? Perhaps because no one in Ocean County wants to secede from the United States. Neither do the residents of Puerto Rico, except for the fringe group of left-wing fanatics that is using the Vieques issue to push the idea of an independent Puerto Rico .

So why are so many mainstream politicians falling for this ploy? That's a question that puzzles Miriam Ramirez de Ferrer. Ramirez is a Republican who was elected last year to the senate of Puerto Rico. Though she now lives in Mayaguez, she has New Jersey roots. She was a freshman at Belleville High School back when Connie Francis was a senior. She is a self-described Army brat who attended college and medical school in Europe. She is the sort of highly intelligent, cultured Puerto Rican you'd think New York Gov. George Pataki would love to meet.

Think again.

During the New York governor's recent visit to Vieques, Ramirez and some other pro-Navy Puerto Ricans went to Vieques to try to meet Pataki in the town square, where he was greeting some anti-Navy demonstrators.

''When we got to Vieques, the police told us we couldn't go into the town square," Ramirez told me when I called her at her office in San Juan. Amid conditions that verged on a riot, the cops refused to let Ramirez meet with her fellow Republican.

"They were saying I was provoking the situation because I went there with an American flag," said Ramirez. "That's the saddest thing you could say about a piece of land that belongs to the United States, that you could provoke people by carrying the flag of the United States."

I asked her if the anti-Navy protesters carried an American flag.

''They have stomped on the U.S. flag," Ramirez said. "This is the picture I wish Pataki could never forget. Here you have a group of United States citizens waving flags and these other people screaming anti-American slogans and a Republican governor is up there hearing all these screams and he doesn't even look at the American flag."

Actually, Pataki almost certainly wishes he could forget the scene. This small woman caused him a big embarrassment. The conservatives slammed him for seeking votes at the expense of American military preparedness. Meanwhile even the liberal press pointed out that he was obviously pandering to the Puerto Rican vote.

There's a lot of that going around. Our own Republican acting governor, Donald DiFrancesco, last year endorsed a resolution calling for the United States to pull out of Vieques and then used it in a blatant attempt to get the support of the Puerto Ricans in his effort to get elected governor this year.

Ramirez says she wishes her fellow Republicans would learn the facts about Vieques. Most people on the island prefer to have the Navy stay, she said. The agitators are a group of left-wing extremists who want America not just out of Vieques but out of Puerto Rico altogether.

''What I can't understand is Republicans siding with the leftist radicals. I'm disturbed with the way the U.S. is handling this. I take this very, very personally."

Fortunately, most Republicans on the national scene are not like Pataki and DiFrancesco. President Bush has ordered the resumption of exercises there later this week. And two prominent congressmen have raised the prospect of cutting off the excise tax on rum, a major source of income for Puerto Rico .

Threats like that are unnecessary. It's a free country, and the people of Puerto Rico are free to opt out of it. I'd suggest we schedule a referendum on independence. Then we start building more customs facilities at the San Juan airport and printing up visa applications.

All of a sudden, a whole lot of voters in Puerto Rico are going to start seeing things more like a certain Republican senator from Mayaguez and less like certain Republican governors from the Northeast.

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