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PUERTO RICO REPORT
Calderón Declares War On The U.S. Navy
by Robert Becker
April 27, 2001
In a week of rapid-fire developments, Gov. Sila Calderón has dragged Puerto Rico into an unprecedented conflict with the United States and torn a deep rent in the fabric of Puerto Rican society.
The conflict over the Navys presence in Vieques has grown to be the tar baby which has ensnared the rookie governor. Shes stuck fast, unable to extricate herself from the sticky mess of Vieques.
Calderón finally made good on her campaign promise to try to stop the Vieques training. She got her Popular Democratic Party legislative majority to approve the so-called Noise Act, a law constructed by her high-priced Washington lawyer to stop Navy ship-to-shore shelling on Vieques. The legislature rushed it through, and Calderón signed it, just four days before the April 27 start of the Navy exercises.
Once she had her new law in hand, Calderón filed suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to obtain an injunction against the Navy shelling. The suit, drafted by $400-per-hour lawyer Richard Copaken of Coving & Burlington, claimed that the Navy shelling caused " vibroacoustic disease" -- a purported malady unrecognized in mainstream medicine -- in Vieques children and fisherman.
The theory, adapted by Copaken from a study of Portuguese aircraft assembly workers for his lawsuit, holds that the sonic waves generated by Navy shelling causes enlarged heart tissue and other ailments in anyone unlucky to be in the waters 10 miles away from the Navy shelling.
In an April 24 press conference, a defiant Calderón gave Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld one day to order the permanent halt of Navy training on Vieques. She refused, however, to release to the press letters to this effect she sent to Rumsfeld and other federal officials.
Further, Calderón provided a police escort and ferry service for civil disobedience demonstrators en route to Vieques, while piously declaiming that she was not encouraging anyone to break the law.
And when five dissident senators from the New Progressive Party introduced a bill mocking the Noise Law, Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora, a veteran Popular Democratic Party autonomist, suspended the five for one day and ordered them physically barred from the Senate floor.
The bizarre string of events left many Puerto Ricans shaking their heads in disbelief, not a few of them from Calderóns PDP, who watched in horror as decades of nurturing close ties to the United States seemed to be consumed in mindless emotion. The cynical observation making the rounds in San Juan was that Calderón had already succeeded in brining about an autonomous Puerto Rican republic.
Calderón sought to portray her actions as a reasoned response to provocations by the United States. She said that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has promised her in a brief meeting in Washington not to resume Navy training until the questions about the alleged health hazards were resolved. Calderón spun the story in a press conference and in a taped television address in which she placed the U.S. flag behind her in a position more prominent than the Puerto Rican flag. But the record showed a far different story.
In a March 9 letter to Calderón, just two days after their meeting in Washington, Rumsfeld wrote:
"While I am encouraged by the dialogue we have started, I am also committed to protecting the health and safety of all American citizens. The facilities owned by the U.S. Navy on Vieques remain an important element of our national defense readiness. In accordance with existing agreements, we plan to proceed with training as required to maintain an appropriate level of readiness...We will continue the notification process in accordance with the 1983 Memorandum of Agreement."
Calderóns portrayal of Rumsfelds position appears, in light of his unambiguous letter, as a deliberate misrepresentation.
Sen. Miriam Ramírez de Ferrer, a NPP senator at -large and one of the governors severest critics, opined that Calderón " has declared war on the U.S. Navy." Ramírezs comments were reflective of a growing anger at Calderón for a course of action that many on the island now regard as anti-American and radical.
That course of action promises to usher in an era of chilly relations between the Calderón administration and the federal government. Relations had hit low points before, such as during the Nationalist Party terrorism and revolt of the 1950s. But this is different. This time, it is not a small gang of radical terrorists but the government of Puerto Rico that is slapping Uncle Sam in the face.
Robert Becker, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: email@example.com