The governor's voice sounded a bit tremulous over the phone. "This is a very sensitive day for our island," said Sila Maria Calderon, the first female chief executive of Puerto Rico.
"I have signed a bill outlawing the Navy bombing exercises -- they violate our health and human rights and our new anti-noise laws. We have just gone into federal court with a suit against the Navy. I never thought it would come to this. I thought we could settle this problem through dialogue and compromise."
The war over the Navy's maneuvers on the beautiful beaches of Vieques, a small island off Puerto Rico, has reached a new and critical phase. It is also becoming something of an issue in New York politics. Republican Gov. George E. Pataki has become a fiery opponent of the exercises, which include ship-to-shore shelling and dummy bombing.
Recently, he made a trip to the island. It was a sound political move: Puerto Ricans are the fastest growing group within the Hispanic community, but a Quinnipiac University poll showed that although New Yorkers agreed with Pataki about ending the bombing, by 61 percent to 24 percent, they stated in similar numbers that the governor should mind his own business.
Whatever his motives, his impact on the Bush administration was not noticeable; two days after Pataki's return from Puerto Rico, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld announced the exercises would go off as planned, just as they have for the past 60 years.
The White House does not want to talk about the problem. Puerto Ricans traditionally vote Democratic, and George W. Bush has courted all Hispanics. But Puerto Rico is going to be used for target practice just the same. The Navy says no place else will do. The shells and dummy bombs will fly on Friday as planned -- unless the court intervenes.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of the late New York senator and an environmentalist, plans to join the thousands of protesters expected at the bomb site. "A Dunkirk-type fleet is being assembled," he says. Five hundred Puerto Ricans have been arrested at the bomb site in the last two years, since a local was killed by an errant bomb.
Calderon, a Manhattanville College graduate who calls herself pro-American, says Puerto Ricans "disagree politically on almost everything, but not on Vieques. We are one against the bombing."
For Democrats, Vieques is embarrassing. In eight years, President Bill Clinton, with his wonted deference to the military, did nothing to interfere with the exercises, and in January 2000 he made a deal with Calderon's predecessor, Pedro Rossello, to buy out the opposition. If Puerto Ricans agreed to the bombing, with live bombs later, they would receive $40 million in development funds. Understandably, an area subject to supersonic jets firing missiles has not attracted developers.
At the White House meeting, Calderon, who was then the mayor of San Juan, was the only opponent. "I told the president, 'Our vote is not for sale,' " she recalled. The president was heard to grumble about "one tough lady."
Andrew M. Cuomo, erstwhile Clinton housing secretary and candidate for New York governor, accuses Pataki of pandering. "He has paid no attention to Puerto Ricans," he says. Cuomo announced his opposition to the bombing in his final week in office; the Pataki people accuse him of being too late. Cuomo's primary foe, Comptroller H. Carl McCall, has always opposed the bombing.
A controversy about the health consequences of the military exercises rages on. The Bush administration has promised further study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Calderon says that an investigation by medical experts shows a thickening of heart walls in Vieques inhabitants, fishermen and children alike, and a higher incidence of cancer than found on other islands. The Navy asked Johns Hopkins to review the findings, but the governor contends Hopkins has not seen the echo cardiograms, which are the crucial evidence.
The Navy has not budged during the uproar. That is the Navy's way. It does not change. It has been using Vieques for target practice for 60 years and does not want to stop now. To the Navy, it seems, change is defeat or surrender.
Look at its response to the recent calamity over the submarine that rammed a Japanese fishing vessel, killed nine people and caused a crisis between us and Japan. The day before the Navy's verdict in the case was announced, the admiral who was meting out the punishment stepped forward with an impassioned defense of the Navy policy of having civilians visit its ships. In the Greeneville tragedy, the visitors were considered a factor. But the Navy thinks that having company is a weapon in its war for public opinion, and it knows it is never wrong.
Now with its intransigence on Vieques, the Navy's only friends may be the people it takes for rides.