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Criollo Referendum Is A Meaningless Exercise

by Robert Becker

June 8, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The “criollo referendum” on the Navy in Vieques is set for July 29. The commonwealth-sponsored referendum for the offshore island is being set up as an alternative to the congressionally-approved referendum of Nov. 6. The criollo referendum has no legal standing, nor will it have any effect on Navy training in the interim.

Gov. Sila Calderón is spending $600,000 in public funds on the criollo referendum. The vote appears nothing less than a propaganda instrument to buttress her anti-Navy campaign. Calderón has failed to deliver on campaign promises to stop the Navy training in Vieques, set to resume here June 13, and she’s looking for ways to shore up her anti-Navy credentials.

The criollo referendum, as initially proposed, would include four options: the Navy stays until May 1, 2003 and trains with inert bombs; the Navy stays indefinitely with live fire -- but without the $50 million provided by the Nov. 6 referendum; the immediate and permanent end to military exercises and bombing in Vieques, which is legally unenforceable; and none of the above. Those options may change after the Puerto Rico Legislature completes its hearings on an enabling law for the vote.

Calderón said the referendum is to let the people of Vieques voice their concerns. But why now? They will have that opportunity on Nov. 6, and with real results.

There really are two blocs of public opinion in Puerto Rico concerned about Vieques. There are the people of Vieques, slightly more than 9,000 people, the majority of whom are poor, are served by poor public schools and medical facilities, and who have little training and few job prospects. They are physically isolated, connected to the “big island” of Puerto Rico by mediocre ferry service and by a commuter air link, and they have been largely neglected for decades by the same commonwealth government which now professes to be so concerned about them.

The other bloc of public opinion, which controls the issue in the press and in the political arena, is based on the main island. The main island anti-Navy activists are better educated, have higher incomes, and much better job prospects than their counterparts in Vieques. Virtually all of the activists who have been getting arrested on Vieques are supporters of Puerto Rican independence or of a more autonomous form of commonwealth.

Unlike the Viequenses, the anti-Navy activists from the main island are unaffected by the Navy training, nor will they be affected in any way by the Navy’s departure.

What this boils down to is that the interests of the people of Vieques are quite different from the political sophisticates from the main island. For the people of Vieques, the issues are their health and safety, the environment and their economic future. They have been subjected to a barrage of propaganda from a gaggle of outside scientific “experts” that the Navy has been harming their environment and subjecting them to mysterious diseases.

Moreover, the voters of Vieques will have to weigh their economic future without the Navy. If the Navy stays, the island gets $50 million in federal development aid, including jobs training and business development, on top of the $40 million already earmarked for the island.

Until now, Vieques has been kept in a largely pristine state because the Navy has been a careful steward of the environment. The damage the Navy has done is confined to 3 percent of the island. Vieques’ chief economic asset is its value as an unspoiled Caribbean tourist getaway. Take the Navy out, and Vieques will become a prime target for land developers, for wealthy people from San Juan wanting weekend vacation house and for squatters anxiously awaiting the Navy’s departure.

The interests of the anti-Navy activists from Puerto Rico are something else. Many of them had never set foot on Vieques before the 1999 bombing accident, and most of them never lifted a finger to help the Viequenses. The pro-independence forces want the Navy out as part of their campaign to evict the United States entirely from Puerto Rico. Calderón and her autonomist allies, understanding the nationalist feelings that most Puerto Ricans feel for their land, are using the Vieques issue to prop up their political support.

The Navy has been quietly gaining support on Vieques. Calderón will fashion a criollo referendum with a stacked deck to ensure a strong anti-Navy vote. She will then use that result in her continuing campaign against the Navy.

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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