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Holidays A Stage For Ideological Battles

by Robert Becker

July 27, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The end of July traditionally ushers in a holiday mood in Puerto Rico. July 25 is Constitution Day, a legal holiday which celebrates the adoption in 1952 of the Commonwealth Constitution. Supporters of the Popular Democratic Party annually gather to celebrate Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status and to tout its ‘best of two worlds" advantages -- its close ties to the United States and its cobbled-together "autonomous" nature.

July 25 also resonates because on that date in 1898 U.S. troops landed at Guanica and took Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans are as deeply divided in how they view this event as they are on political status and a host of other issues. Many Puerto Ricans then and now saw the U.S. invasion as a liberation from the stifling, class-conscious rule of imperial Spain. Others, particularly the criollo elites and their modern-day successors in the independence and autonomist movements, viewed the invasion as an act of conquest and military occupation that lasts to this day.

On July 27, it’s the statehooders’ turn. They celebrate the birthday of José Celso Barbosa, the early 20th century advocate of Puerto Rico’s annexation to the United States who is considered the father of the statehood movement. It’s a day when supporters of the New Progressive Party gather to wave U.S. flags and extol statehood as the best way to guarantee social progress, economic parity with the United States and permanent U.S. citizenship.

Puerto Rico traditionally grinds to a halt for these two politically-charged holidays, and this year was no exception. By Wednesday, it was impossible to get anyone to answer a phone in government or business offices, and traffic thinned out noticeably on the highways. Most Puerto Ricans, particularly government employees, took the opportunity to turn the July 25 through July 29 stretch into a five-day weekend. The only people not taking the days off were the militants from the two major parties, who used their respective observances to advance their status agendas.

For all of those reasons, the July holidays always raise Puerto Rico’s political temperature, and this year political passions are running high. What these holidays are really about is how Puerto Ricans see themselves vis-a-vis the United States, and that divide is cut even more deeply this year by the Vieques issue. "Vieques’ has now grown to mean not just the U. S. Navy’s future on the offshore island but it has become a line in the sand over one’s loyalty to the United States.

And as if all that weren’t enough to keep the pot boiling, Vieques voters go to the polls on Sunday the 29th in the so-called criollo referendum on the Navy’s future.

While the local referendum is not legally binding, it is an important battleground in the propaganda war

The Vieques issue has moved into the status debate because the statehooders have successfully redefined it as the litmus test of one’s loyalty towards the United States. They first realized the emotional power of the issue with their skirmishes over raising the U.S. flag around the 4th of July. Now, Vieques means - do we want the United States in Puerto Rico or not? Calderón, not to be left behind, used her July 25 speech in Humacao to call for a tri-party conference to work out status alternatives to present to the federal government.

The clearest example of how the Vieques issue has morphed is the curious turn-about of former Gov. Carlos Romero Barceló. Romero has long been a Navy critic, and he has also been a steadfast supporter of the congressionally-sponsored referendum this November on the Navy’s future.

Yet, Romero off shock waves when he announced that he was going to Vieques on Constitution Day to campaign for Option 3, which would allow the Navy to remain indefinitely and use live fire. I asked Romero about his sudden turnabout. Romero said he still supported the November referendum, but was campaigning for Option 3 as a way of discrediting Gov. Sila Calderón’s criollo referendum and of rallying people on Vieques to a pro-U.S. position. When he arrived on Vieques he was greeted by rock-throwing thugs.

It was not just statehooders who have become unhappy with Calderón’ s radical anti-Navy stand. A PDP insider told me many of the party’s Old Guard were increasingly uncomfortable with Calderón’s Vieques stance, believing she has been coopted by the island’s tiny independence movement. They are watching, with deep apprehension, as the White House and many in Congress are viewing Puerto Rico in a more questioning light.

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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