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The Star-Ledger Newark, NJ

Viva Puerto Rico Libre


June 24, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Star-Ledger. All Rights Reserved.

You might have seen that column in the Star-Ledger last week by a Rutgers faculty member named Pedro A. Caban criticizing the United States for its military maneuvers on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques and calling for Puerto Rico to become independent of the United States.

I sincerely hope that Caban and the other Vieques demonstrators get their wish, that Puerto Rico become a free and independent nation and that Caban and every other opponent of U.S. imperialism will return to an independent homeland and live happily ever after.

By the way, professor, unlike a certain other evil empire, America doesn't have any walls keeping you in. Several excellent airlines serve San Juan out of Newark, so your flight to freedom will be a comfortable one.

Congratulations. You won the argument. You convinced President Bush that Puerto Rico does not have to contribute even a tiny portion of its land mass for the same sort of military facility that Americans on the mainland tolerate without complaint. The Vieques bombing range produces no real hardship or danger for the people of Puerto Rico , at least not compared to similar military facilities in the United States. The Vieques range is used only a few times a year and is more than eight miles from the nearest population center. By way of comparison, the bombing range at Warren Grove in my own Ocean County is used almost daily and has about 50,000 people within an eight-mile radius.

Of course, a civilian worker was killed in an accident at Vieques not too long ago. As it happens, a civilian worker was killed in an accident at the Lakehurst naval station not too long ago.

Then there's the question of environmental damage. At Vieques , the offshore reefs are actually in better shape than in most of Puerto Rico because the Navy has kept most of the island in its natural state. Meanwhile in Plumsted Township, the Air Force is still cleaning up plutonium that was spread around when a Bomarc missile burned some years ago.

So by any standard, the people of New Jersey have as much right to complain as the people of Vieques . Instead of flying to Puerto Rico , Al Sharpton could have just driven down the Parkway and chained himself to the gate at the Warren Grove range. Except there's no gate. They don't need one because no one objects to the range.

So why the objections in Puerto Rico? Miriam Ramirez de Ferrer, a Republican member of the Puerto Rican Senate who supports the pro-American position on Vieques , traces the agitation to an American college student who moved to Vieques from Massachusetts 20 years ago after working on a thesis on U.S. imperialism. The student, Robert Rabin, began the Vieques agitation and led it to its successful conclusion. The nonsense about health issues was just a smokescreen for the anti-Americanism, says Ramirez, who is a doctor.

"I once told him, 'Don't come here with this health thing. Your real thing was United States military intervention, not health.'"

That was obvious in the anti-American rhetoric of so many of the Vieques protesters. New York Rep. Jose Serrano was quoted as saying, "I was born in a colony and I'm a member of Congress of a colonial power." And Caban himself quoted Gov. Sila Calderon, a prominent Vieques opponent: "We are Puerto Ricans who are U.S. citizens; we are not U.S. citizens who happen to be Puerto Ricans . We are Puerto Ricans first."

This is an interesting pose. The 4 million people on the island don't pay federal taxes but receive some $13 billion in federal aid. About two-thirds of the island population receives some sort of federal financial assistance. The realists in Puerto Rico are under no illusions about this. An Associated Press article on statehood quoted a 35-year-old man who compared Puerto Rico to its independent neighbor, the Dominican Republic.

"There is no way we could live the way we do, with nice cars and nice clothes and nice houses. We must remain part of the United States if we don't want to be poor like the rest of the Caribbean."

If you read Caban's column, you might have noticed him hedging his bets on that one. He called for independence "grounded in economic security." In other words, keep sending the checks, Uncle Sam, but don't expect anything in return.

Compare the Vieques protesters to some real Latin-American radicals. I have no sympathy for Fidel Castro's crowd, but at least they're not hypocrites. They hate Uncle Sam and they're willing to live on rice and beans forever to prove the point. The many Sandinistas I met in Nicaragua in the 1980s were equally misguided but they were willing to die for their cause.

As for the anti-Vieques people, they claim to represent what Caban terms "a distinctive nationality and cultural identity" but they want all of the comforts of modern life with no sacrifice. What could be more American than that?

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