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The Providence Journal

Puerto Rico: An American Asset Of Diminishing Value

January 4, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Providence Journal. All Rights Reserved.

When it takes office, the Bush administration will face an immediate problem in an unlikely place, Puerto Rico .

The setting is Vieques, a small island off Puerto Rico where the Navy has been testing ordnance for nearly a century. In 1999, a bombing accident killed a Puerto Rican guard on the Navy range, which was then invaded by Puerto Rican nationalists. The protesters occupied the range for nearly a year, thwarting further testing, until the White House concluded an agreement with Puerto Rico 's Gov. Pedro Rossello. That agreement let the Navy resume exercises, with non-explosive devices, and would delay any full Navy withdrawal until a 2003 referendum on the subject. It also called for the immediate conveyance of some 8,000 acres of Navy land to Vieques.

Now, Puerto Rico 's newly elected governor, Sila Maria Calderon, has vowed not only to abrogate the agreement, but has demanded an immediate referendum , and has threatened to withdraw Puerto Rican guards from the Navy range, inviting protesters to reoccupy the land. Says Governor Calderon: When one believes in something and in a principle in this case the people of Vieques's democratic rights and rights to security of life and health we cannot act with fear. What she means, of course, is not only the abrogation of the Clinton agreement, but a surrender of federal rights on U.S. territory.

There is a political subtext to all this. Former Governor Rossello was a proponent of statehood for Puerto Rico , while Governor Calderon favors continued commonwealth status with in-creased Puerto Rican autonomy, especially over the $13 billion that the United States confers on Puerto Rico each year. (The 4 million residents of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens who may serve in the armed forces but do not pay federal taxes and cannot vote for president.)

Our view is that Puerto Rico is an American asset of diminishing value. It is probable that the Navy could find another place in the Caribbean for testing its ordnance, and should find it as soon as possible. On the larger issue of Puerto Rico 's status , however, Mrs. Calderon should be reminded that official defiance and implicit threats are not options in a democratic system, and that agreements between states or commonwealths and the federal government are not abrogated without cost.

In any event, the attachment of most Americans to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is not strong, and most could find better uses for that $13 billion. Indeed, perhaps it would be better for the United States, if not for Puerto Rico , if that island became independent (even though polls indicate that the majority of Puerto Ricans prefer the current arrangement).

Meanwhile, if Mrs. Calderon is determined to alienate the U.S. government, she should be prepared to pay the price of the American rule of law.

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