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Puerto Rico's Battle Of The Flags

by Robert Becker

July 6, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

July is always a hot month in Puerto Rico. Apart from the swelteringly hot days, Puerto Ricans also turn up the political temperature with their celebrations of two competing holidays -- July 4, Independence Day, and July 25, Commonwealth Day.

The 4th of July has, for statehooders, been a rallying point to celebrate U.S. citizenship and bang the drums for the advantages of statehood. For commonwealth supporters, July 25 is the day to celebrate the adoption in 1952 of the Constitution of the " Free Associated State" of Puerto Rico, for many Puerto Ricans a bulwark against assimilation into the United States and the disappearance of their cultural identity.

When the pro-statehood New Progressive Party is in power, the government goes all-out with patriotic July 4 celebrations. When the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party is in power, the Commonwealth Day festivities take center stage.

This year, the two holiday celebrations have taken on an extra emotional charge. Partisans on both sides have been aroused by the so-called Battle of the Flags, a series of political street theater events fought over the proper respect due the U.S. and commonwealth flags. More than just mere political posturing, the battle over the flags summed up the deep frustrations and anxieties felt by statehooders over the perceived anti-U.S. drift of the current Popular Democratic Party administration.

The first shot was fired with the raising of the U.S. flag on June 24 on Roosevelt Avenue, a busy San Juan thoroughfare named after President Franklin D. Roosevelt.. The stunt was staged by Sen. Miriam Ramírez de Ferrer, a fervent statehooder known for her outspoken views in support of the U.S. and the military.

The flag was torn down during the night by pro-independence supporters, cut into tiny ribbons and mailed to Ramírez at her Senate office. Police bomb experts were called in to inspect the package when it arrived at Ramírez’s office.

Before daylight the next morning, a band of pro-statehood young people raised a U.S. flag atop a pole at the so-called Vieques Chapel on the windy hill directly in front of the Capitol Building in San Juan. The chapel is a replica of one built by protesters on Navy land on Vieques. While the chapel replica was built on public land leased by anti-Navy activists, only the flags of Puerto Rico and Vieques were flown there.

To statehooders, that was just one more piece of evidence of the anti-U.S. message of the Vieques protest movement, a reasonable conclusion despite the frequent protestations to the contrary by Gov. Sila M. Calderón, who has put the entire weight of her government behind the anti-Navy movement.

A band of pro-independence supporters soon appeared, including Marxist University of Puerto Rico professor Julio Muriente and lawyer Jorge Farinacci, who had served prison time for his role in illegal activities of the terrorist Macheteros organization.

Day-long scuffling ensued, and hundreds of police were called to the scene. By nightfall, five people had been taken to hospitals, and one man was arrested.

Under an agreement subsequently negotiated between the opposing camps, the U.S. flag was raised on another part of the hill, and police were posted to stand guard over the flags.

Calderón denounced the pro-U.S. protesters, and others in her administration called the flag-raising a "provocation."

Soon, U.S. flags were being raised all over the island. The PDP mayor of Guánica, a southwest coast town where U.S. invading forces landed in 1898, warned that the U.S. flags raised in his town could provoke violence if they were not taken down by the July 25 commonwealth celebration.

The events seemed to galvanize the statehooders, who had been on the ropes since Calderón’s big win in the November elections. An estimated 50,000 people turned out for the July 4 celebrations, a huge turn-out in comparison to previous years. One of those in attendance was PDP Rep. Jorge de Castro Font, an outspoken critic of Calderón’s perceived anti-U.S. stance. Other pro-U.S. PDP legislators have also been expressing their growing uneasiness with Calderón’s leadership.

Calderón and the pro-autonomist wing of her party still remain in firm control of the PDP and government. Typical of their views were those expressed by PDP legislators Margarita Ostolaza and Cirilo Tirado when asked by a reporter what the 4th of July meant to them.

Said Ostolaza: "The 4th of July has nothing to do with our reality. I have never celebrated the 4th of July," calling it a "foreign" holiday.

Added Tirado: "The independence of the United States has nothing to do with us."

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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