Sen. James Inhofe was too late. Last Wednesday Karl Rove, the president's political strategist, was presiding over a White House meeting with the secretary of the Navy. There it was decided: military-training exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques would be halted in two years. It was the latest chapter in a two-year political drama that drew in high-profile protesters and high-priced hired guns. As soon as Inhofe got word of what was going down, he phoned Rove, had him pulled out of the meeting and sternly upbraided him. "This is a decision that will affect American lives," said Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who had fought to preserve the prized island for the Navy. Rove was unmoved. The Navy had made its recommendation, he replied tersely, and "our inclination is to follow that." Rarely has the right been more upset with the Bush White House. "This was a political decision," says Inhofe.
And a risky one at that. The administration's calculus: that whatever wrath it incurred from Republican hawks and the Pentagon would be outweighed by the future votes of Latinos gratified by Bush's decision. It remains to be seen whether the Bushies calculated correctly; as far as most Puerto Ricans are concerned, anything short of an immediate end to the bombing is unacceptable. What's clear, though, is that Hispanics convinced the White House that this was an issue that stirred passions across Latino America--shattering the parochial ethnic politics that has sometimes limited their influence. "This is the first time on a very narrow issue that we were able to forge a national lobby... and force the government to back down," says Andy Hernandez, of St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas. "That's historic."
Latinos waged a state-of-the-art campaign aimed at running the Navy out of Vieques. In March, at the first meeting between Bush and the 18-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus--which includes Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans and a Cuban-American--Vieques was the first issue raised. Protesters ensured that the media--especially Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo--beamed a steady diet of rousing images across ethnic boundaries. They enlisted celebrities like Edward James Olmos--who could galvanize Mexican-Americans in the Southwest--as well as savvy political players like New York Gov. George Pataki and the Rev. Al Sharpton to pressure the administration. Puerto Rico Gov. Sila Calderon even hired Charles Black, a Washington superlobbyist and Republican strategist, under a five-month, $250,000 contract. A friend of Rove's, Black told NEWSWEEK that he offered the president's strategist this simple advice: "Try to settle this. The problem is not going to go away."
Other factors may have come into play. Later this year Rosewood Hotels & Resorts of Dallas plans to open a luxury resort on Vieques. The company, which last year gave $100,000 in soft money to the Republican National Committee, is half-owned by Caroline Rose Hunt, whose half brother was Bush's Texas Finance chairman. According to one source intimately familiar with the Vieques dispute, the Navy's bombing "had raised concerns" about development plans on the island. But a Rosewood spokeswoman insisted that the company had not spoken to anyone in the administration about the project.
Whatever tipped the balance, Latinos are energized. Hispanic organizations like the National Council of La Raza and the League of United Latin American Citizens are pushing harder than ever for a broad Latino agenda. As Rep. Robert Menendez, a Cuban-American from New Jersey, cautions: "When they trample upon our rights, when they show us disrespect, the coalition... will come together."
But can Latinos pull off a second act? After all, Vieques--a tiny island being pummeled by ordnance--was an easy cause to rally behind. Other issues, like Puerto Rico's statehood debate or U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba, may still be too thorny to transcend ethnic lines. Immigration tops the Mexican-American agenda; but other Latinos won't necessarily take to the streets for an amnesty bill for undocumented workers. Still, people like Rodolfo de la Garza at the University of Texas argue that "there's now clearly a basis for collaboration."
As Latinos grapple with their nascent political power, Republicans confront a separate question: how to harness that power for their party. They can hardly assume that a concession on Vieques will automatically yield Hispanic converts, who mostly vote Democratic (the major exception: Florida's reliably Republican Cuban-American community). There have been other gestures as well, of course--a milder tone on immigration, radio addresses in Spanish. Take them cumulatively and perhaps the GOP will seem more attractive to Latinos, who voted 35 percent for Bush (the highest for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan's 44 percent). It's enough to concern some Democrats. If Bush could garner 40 or 45 percent of the vote next time around, says Armando Gutierrez, a Democratic consultant on Latino issues, "that could be devastating to our party." But "there comes a point," he adds, "at which the effort that Bush would have to make [to win Latino support] will come into conflict with the basic politics of the Republican Party." Fired up as they are, Hispanics will be calling for far more than the Navy's exit from Vieques.