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Vieques-Who is Responsible?

by Gene Roman

July 29, 2001
Copyright © 2001 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The Vieques bombing controversy has succeeded in uniting various sectors of the Religious, Labor & Hispanic communities like few other issues can. For months now, activist centers in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and the Island have crafted a message that seeks to appeal to the Nation’s commitment to human rights and basic constitutional protections.

Since Puerto Rico is a United States territory without a voting delegation in Congress, activists have successfully combined a strategy of lobbying mainland elected officials with a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience to call attention to their grievances. On Sunday, July 29, they won a symbolic victory when Vieques residents voted for the immediate removal of the Navy in a Government of Puerto Rico sponsored referendum. Unfortunately, these activists have ignored an essential element of the Vieques dilemma, namely, the unresolved nature of Puerto Rico’s political status.

Samuel Quiros, a Floridian advocating for the permanent decolonization of the Island writes: "Why do we blame the U.S. military for using Vieques? Why do we, as Puerto Ricans, fail to assume the responsibility for what is happening? Yes, it is our fault that as a people we lack the power and sovereignty to resolve this issue. We continue to send mixed messages to Congress. We continue to support a political status (the present Commonwealth arrangement) that does not remove us from under the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Puerto Ricans must come off the fence and make a decision to chart our own political destiny. Either as a republic or as a state, Puerto Rico would have more tools and the ability to impact its own situation than it has today as a territory of the United States. We have not sent a clear message that we want our freedom and our sovereignty."

In 1998, Congress was ready to give Puerto Ricans a chance to send that clear message. After months of heated debate, the House passed the United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act, or Young Bill, that would have authorized a Congressionally sponsored referendum to permanently resolve the Island’s political status. It passed the House, but never came to a vote in the Senate.

Opponents of this legislation argued that it was unfairly stacked in favor of statehood. The legislation, which had the support of both the Puerto Rican Independence and Statehood parties, did not fulfill the wishes of Commonwealth supporters who sought to make the present "best of both worlds" philosophy a permanent feature of the Constitution. A federal Department of Justice analysis released in January 2001,

reiterated what Congress and the federal Courts have previously declared, namely, that "the mutual consent (best of both worlds) clauses are constitutionally unenforceable."

It is ironic that opponents of a permanent resolution to the Island’s status are some of the same organizations calling for an end to military exercises in Vieques. In the states, the armed forces are accountable to two Senators and members of Congress. In Puerto Rico, they are accountable to no one. "This is the root of the problem," says Quiros. "Vieques is just one more in a long series of incidents . . . that illustrates the precariousness of our situation, the inadequacy of the current political status, and the inability of our people to exercise control over their own lives and destiny."

So as they rightfully take advantage of their rights as United States citizens to lobby their voting members of Congress, Vieques activists would do well to consider that it is their strident opposition to a permanent resolution to the status question that keeps the Vieques problem alive and kicking.

Gene Roman is the former Massachusetts Regional Director of the Office of the Governor of Puerto Rico. He can be contacted at or 718-918-2434.

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