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Celebrating, In Contradictory Fashion, Tito and Denise

by Robert Becker

May 18, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The heavy spring rains brought severe flooding to southwest Puerto Rico. The shouts of the rowdy anti-Navy demonstrators on Vieques had barely died down before Gov. Sila Calderón was aloft in a helicopter, touring the flooded areas with the regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration.

Calderón, showing no awareness of the irony of the situation, was seeking a disaster declaration from President Bush so Puerto Rico could obtain federal funds to offset its estimated $146 million in flood losses.

The mixed message from the Calderón administration was this: yes, we want money from the federal government when we are in need, but no, we don’t want to shoulder our obligations for the national defense. One congressman, Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah, began looking at cutting Puerto Rico’s share of federal education funds.

Two other events that closely followed brought into focus Puerto Rico’s contradictory and often uneasy relationship with the United States.

On the evening of May 11, Denise Quiñones, from the small Puerto Rican mountain town of of Lares, was crowned Miss Universe 2001 in a lavish, internationally-televised spectacle in Bayamón. One night later, Félix " Tito" Trinidad, Puerto Rico’s undefeated boxing idol, won a share of the world middleweight boxing championship with a dramatic 5th round knockout of William Joppy in Madison Square Garden

Quiñones won with a dazzling combination of beauty, self-assurance and poise. She also won, some observers pointed out, because of her complete command of English, the language of the pageant. Ricky Martin, the one-time boy band kid sensation from San Juan, wowed the crowd with his usual electrifying performance. In English.

The crowd in Bayamón, which included Gov. Sila Calderón, enthusiastically cheered Quiñones’s achievement, and members of Calderón’ s Popular Democratic Party legislative majority scrambled to pass resolutions in praise of her. The same PDP legislators, however, are holding hearings on eliminating English as one of Puerto Rico’s two official languages.

The next night at the Garden, Trinidad, who has campaigned in Puerto Rico for pro-statehood candidates, entered the ring waving a Puerto Rican flag. When the "Star Spangled Banner" began playing, Trinidad respectfully held his hand over his heart. Many in the pro-Trinidad crowd, however, booed throughout the playing of the U.S. national anthem.

The next morning, a prominent San Juan Spanish-language daily newspaper screamed, in huge banner headline type: "We are great!"

The celebrations of Puerto Rican achievement turned, unsurprisingly, into partisan and status-related posturing on the island. Monday May 14 was declared a "National Holiday" by Calderón, who gave most public employees the day off, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars in lost productivity. Business leaders, some of them PDP supporters, shook their heads in disbelief at Calderón’s largess with public monies.

PDP mayors followed Calderón’s lead in giving their employees a day off, but opposition New Progressive Party mayors did not. San Juan’s NPP Mayor Jorge Santini expressed the view of many, saying that Quiñones and Trinidad set an example of hard work and discipline for all Puerto Ricans -- neither virtue of which was observed in the public worker holiday.

Fortunately for Calderón, the awarding of federal disaster funds are not subject to any turns of the prickly U.S.-Puerto Rico political relationship. Bush came through with a Disaster Zone designation for the island on May 16, opening the spigots for millions in FEMA funds for the island.

The Vieques issue remained as the sore spot in that relationship and the likely catalyst for any future alterations in that relationship.

The true nature of the anti-Navy movement, of which Calderón remains uneasily at the head, can be gleaned from the arrest statistics from the Navy’s late-April maneuvers. Of 165 protesters arrested on the Vieques firing range, four were from Vieques. The rest were from the main island of Puerto Rico and points farther north, such as the New York-Washington digs of Robert Kennedy Jr. and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

The post-protest scenario offered protesters complaining about their human rights being violated by the Navy security personnel and U.S. marshals. They complained -- after destroying federal property, trespassing onto a restricted military range and disrupting military training -- that they were... handcuffed! Forced to lie on the ground!. Searched... after being taken into custody! And that they had to spend the night in custody in uncomfortable circumstances!

Calderón knows she is riding a tiger. Vieques threatens to consume her administration. She’ll get her FEMA funds, but many other things of greater importance -- economic development incentives, tax incentives and rebates, and status -- will be measured in the harsh light of Vieques.

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:

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