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Vieques as Seen through Different Eyes

by Lance Oliver

January 19, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Just days before leaving the White House, Bill Clinton has dumped the Vieques issue in George W. Bush’s lap.

Clinton ordered Health and Human Services to investigate claims by attorney Richard Copaken and others that the Navy’s shelling has caused underwater shock waves that are dangerous to residents, especially children. That investigation, if it actually takes place, will conclude under Bush’s watch, of course.

Hardly anyone involved in the debate over Copaken’s claims understands the science involved, but that hasn’t stopped most people from making up their minds about whether the claims are true.

Though the order for a study was yet another unexpected concession from Clinton, it was, once again, not enough to satisfy the Navy’s opponents completely. Gov. Sila Calderón wants a better deal for Puerto Rico than the directives already issued by Clinton, and so do most people in Puerto Rico. At the same time, most members of the U.S. Congress think the directives went at least far enough, and some say too far.

This disconnect between the official point of view in San Juan and the official position in Washington is nothing new, of course. But it’s not just the two governments that look at the same world and see two totally different pictures.

Two conversations I recently had illustrate the lack of understanding that exists not just between the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments, but between the two peoples. On one hand, I spoke with a Puerto Rican man who has spent minimal time in the states and he argued that the key to moving the Vieques issue toward the Calderón viewpoint was to get the U.S. public involved.

Once average people in the United States learned about the issue, they would see the obvious virtue of the Puerto Rican position and public opinion would move U.S. officials to give in, he asserted.

The second conversation took place with a man of Puerto Rican descent who has lived on the island but spent most of his life in the states, where he currently lives. He is well informed about Vieques and has warm feelings for Puerto Rico, though he visits irregularly and hasn’t lived here since he was an adolescent.

He told me he has mixed feelings about the issue: that on one hand, he recognizes the price Vieques has paid, but on the other hand he believes such sacrifices must be made in exchange for being part of the United States.

If a person with definite sympathies toward Puerto Rico has mixed feelings, what would be the reaction of the 99 percent of the U.S. population that is not Puerto Rican and has little or no knowledge of Puerto Rico and its history?

My reaction to the first of the two men cited above was that to the extent more people in the United States are made aware of the Vieques conflict, the more supporters the Navy will gain. For the average U.S. citizen, a cursory review of the situation would most likely lead to the viewpoint that military training is essential and that a few thousand people on a far-flung island will have to make some sacrifices for that important national need.

The other misunderstanding, in my opinion, is the ongoing belief among large portions of the Puerto Rican public that a better deal can be negotiated. Commentators on the island sift all manner of tea leaves in a search for reasons to believe the Bush administration will be more kindly toward the island than Clinton was.

Some cite the presence of Andrew Card, who knows Puerto Rico better than most in Washington, as Bush’s chief of staff. Others cite supposed Bush family affinity toward the island. These seem to me to be desperate hopes.

A tougher Bush administration stance on the Vieques issue would surprise me far less than a softer one.

Puerto Rico’s unequivocal embrace of democracy sometimes leads to an overestimation of the power of a good old protest march in the streets. This extends to the Vieques issue, as well.

So many people here believe that Washington will be moved to act if only enough political leaders demand it and enough protesters march in the streets. Never mind that none of those protesters vote for federal officials. In reality, the residents of Puerto Rico have very little sway over anyone in the federal government, a fact proven countless times over the past century.

The history of relations between the United States and Puerto Rico sometimes looks like one long series of misunderstandings, with the two sides speaking different languages in more ways than one and never really communicating. Even at this late stage in the process, Vieques does not appear to be the exception.

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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