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Vieques Is Litmus Test For Hillary Clinton In New York

Critics Say The First Lady Hasn't Done Enough To Help End The Navy- Puerto Rico Dispute

December 25, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

NEW YORK - If Hillary Rodham Clinton wants to gauge the political fallout of the Vieques controversy on her burgeoning New York Senate campaign, all she has to do is stop for lunch at La Fonda Boricua, a chummy walk-in luncheonette in the heart of the Spanish-speaking neighborhoods of East Harlem known as "El Barrio."

"Everybody's talking about Vieques ," says Jorge Ayala, the easygoing Puerto Rican -born owner of the bustling restaurant that serves a clientele of regulars that includes artists, teachers, lawyers, police officers and firefighters.

Some customers at the packed eatery on Manhattan's East 106th Street express anger that President Clinton has refused to order a permanent end to military target practice on the 52-square-mile Puerto Rican island that is home to 9,300 civilians, all U.S. citizens by birth.

Other patrons voice fears that the White House may soon order U.S. marshals and FBI agents to round up dozens of protesters encamped on the bombing range and make way for the resumption of military training that has been suspended since April.

Many complain that the first lady has done too little to help end an eight-month standoff with the Navy over the future of the Vieques target range that has been used to train every East Coast-based Navy-Marine Corps combat force since World War II.

The president waded into the dispute on Dec. 3 and ordered resumption of military training on the island next spring by the Navy-Marine Corps battle group led by the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. Clinton gave a concession to the protesters by limiting future combat exercises to nonexplosive inert munitions.

The dispute between Puerto Rico and the Navy has become a political litmus test for many in this tightknit community.

"Everybody understands Vieques ," says Antonio Martorell, 60, a Georgetown University-educated artist who divides his time between New York and Puerto Rico." Vieques is about life and death and making a living. That's why the issue has gone so far."

Gloria Quinones, 55, a retired Puerto Rico-born legal aid lawyer with two sons, says both of the Clintons' actions on Vieques will determine whether she supports the first lady for the U.S. Senate in next November's election.

"I would have a very hard time voting for her for the Senate given what the president has done," says Quinones, whose husband was arrested with nine others during peaceful civil disobedience protest over Vieques at the United Nations on Dec. 7.

The Clinton administration's Dec. 3 compromise calls for the Navy to withdraw from the island in five years, $40 million in economic development assistance and immediate turnover of 8,000 acres of the 22,000 acres that the Navy has owned since 1941.

Howard Wolfson, Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign spokesman, said the first lady continues to support an immediate and permanent end to bombing on Vieques. However, she has not expressed a public reaction to the president's announcement that military training will resume on Vieques in the spring.

The latest polls show New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has a 46 percent to 42 percent lead over Hillary Clinton. Hispanic voters, who are expected to be about 6 percent of the vote next November, could become part of the influential swing vote that determines the outcome.

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