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Puerto Rico Now Faces A Changed America

by Robert Becker

September 14, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The events of Sept. 11 will set off repercussions that will be felt for years, including Puerto Rico’s aspirations about controlling the future of Vieques and forging some kind of new relationship with the United States.

One thing that was eminently clear, even before the great clouds of smoke and dust dissipated from Lower Manhattan, was that national security, and the military’s role, are now at the forefront of U.S. state policy.

The chief casualty of the terrorist attacks, from a Puerto Rican perspective, was the expected eviction of the U.S. Navy from Vieques.

There now exists no political climate for discussion, let along serious consideration, of forcing the Navy from Vieques. That issue has become irrelevant to the United States. Call it terrorist collateral damage.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon have put the nation on a war footing. Put in historical context, the events rival Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination in impact on the national psyche.

As I write this, the United States is enlisting support of nations around the world to support military action against the terrorists and their supporters. The concerns of Puerto Rico, particularly the Vieques issue, have dropped off the agenda, now and for the foreseeable future.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Gov. Calderón responded promptly and generously. She sent letters of condolences to President Bush, New York Gov. George Pataki, New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and ordered three days of mourning and that all flags be flown at half staff.

After meeting with her Security Council, Calderón dispatched 338 rescue personnel to New York aboard Puerto Rico National Guard planes. The rescuers included a 58-person Civil Defense team, Health Department medical personnel, a 30-member Fire Department team and a 250-person National Guard medical team.

In her response to the unspeakable tragedy, Calderón showed a deft touch and acted quickly. Understanding the blow delivered to the American people, Calderón also probably will let the Vieques issue alone. Calderón is a smart politician, and she can see the political direction in which the United States is moving.

That direction will not include abandoning a training site vital to U.S. national security.

Calderón’s Popular Democratic Party has always harbored anti-American elements. On the same day that Calderón was announcing her sympathy for the United States in its moment of tragedy, a ranking PDP member was blaming the United States for the calamity that had befallen it.

In an interview with the San Juan Star, Ponce Mayor Rafael "Churrumba" Cordero Santiago said that President Bush had alienated the United States "from the whole world," and that Bush was surrounded by people who represent "the rampant extreme right in the United States." The Bush administration was imposing U.S. foreign policy "by force," Cordero said, which is not " a healthy policy."

Cordero, who heads Puerto Rico’s second most important city, was recently released from federal prison here after serving a month for trespassing on the Vieques firing range. He also predicted the terrorist attacks would not affect Bush’s order for the Navy to vacate Vieques by 2003, as the Navy training is for "overseas security."

Cordero and perhaps some of the more leftist independence supporters may continue to agitate against the Navy in Vieques. Most Puerto Ricans, however, will be backing off the issue in the coming weeks and months, out of an innate sense of decency.

Before the terrorist attack, Calderón’s militant anti-Navy stance had angered and offended many conservative members of Congress. It is unthinkable now that Calderón would push the issue, given Washington’s warlike mood.

Because of the severity of the terrorist blow to the world economic system, the United States will be entering unchartered economic straits. Large amounts of federal resources will be diverted to defense and intelligence, and the federal treasury will feel the reverberations of the blow. That makes Puerto Rico’s prospects for federal tax incentives slim or none. It also makes highly unlikely any meaningful increases in Puerto Rico’s share of federal programs.

Any talk of " improving" Puerto Rico’s status, too, will simply be put aside for the foreseeable future. The focus and power of the United States will be on navigating the treacherous new waters of the 21st century world of global terrorism. Puerto Rico’s challenge will be to adapt to these new realities.

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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