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Orlando Sentinel

3 Horses In Painting Symbolize Crossroads Of Puerto Rico

By Ivan Roman

MAY 12, 2002
Copyright © 2002
The Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- There are three horsemen in the painting called "Crossroads," a blue one, a green one and a yellowish one leaning more toward orange.

Evoking the Three Wise Men and the island's three political parties, Puerto Rican artist and muralist Luis Felipe Lopez put them on horses without reins, symbolizing the people marching to their own beat.

The green one, Mr. Independence, trots about, not running.

The blue one, Mr. Statehood , faces away from the other two, looking over the Capitol's dome toward a political and economic horizon he wants to reach. But the horse isn't moving, its horseshoes embedded in the gears of manufacturing, which these days churn slower and slower.

The horse carrying Mr. Commonwealth, the status quo, is also still, but his hooves are free to move suddenly to and fro. A bag full of coins sits in the horseman's hands.

"He's the one who can save the country or sell it out," said Lopez, whose exhibit opened Tuesday at the State Department in Old San Juan. "He could give up the economy, but in exchange for what?"

This is the crossroads Puerto Rico has faced for decades.

And the signs coming from San Juan and Washington recently point toward the two cities growing further and further apart.

That's what the pro- statehood activists who most closely identify themselves with the United States are afraid of, the minority who carry U.S. flags everywhere and insist that the Navy stay in Vieques.

Congressmen in Washington have already warned that the Navy's expected exit from Vieques in May 2003 could pave the way for the military to also close Naval Station Roosevelt Roads in Ceiba, one of the Navy's largest bases in the Atlantic. If that happens, pro- Navy activists say, in no time part of Puerto Rico 's $13 billion in federal aid will start disappearing.

Also, the signs are clear that the Army's Southern Command, which arrived in Fort Buchanan in the San Juan metropolitan area in 1999, will move to Georgia or Texas, in part, officials say privately, because of a supposed anti-military sentiment on the island. Never mind that thousands of Puerto Ricans have died in battle and hundreds of reservists are heading overseas next week to shore up forces in the U.S. war on terrorism.

Resentment over comments such as these and others since the Vieques controversy began, analysts say, explain the results of a recent poll in El Nuevo Dia newspaper -- 60 percent consider Puerto Rico as their nation, 17 percent say it's the island and the United States, and just 20 percent say it's the United States.

"That sense of belonging to a place that the people of Texas or New York have is normal, but here they've put in people's heads that to truly be Puerto Rican, you can't be American, that it's one or the other," said pro- statehood Sen. Miriam Ramirez de Ferrer. "The independentistas also tell us that if we become a state, we lose all our culture, and that's not true."

But many say the heart of the matter is that the United States, which treated and maintained Puerto Rico as a military territory, is realizing the island no longer has the strategic military importance it once did.

Meanwhile, the search for more autonomy for Puerto Rico hints that more confrontation is yet to come. Some legislators are trying to declare Spanish the island's official language, and the pro- commonwealth government is pushing for Puerto Rico to establish a more effective -- and some would say closer to sovereign -- presence in Latin American and international organizations.

Officials are lobbying Congress to let U.S. corporations in Puerto Rico be treated as if they were foreign entities so they could get bigger tax breaks, and to free the island of costly shipping laws that make Puerto Rico less competitive. Just as with the Vieques issue, for some, the message that what's good for the United States sometimes hurts Puerto Rico is coming in loud and clear.

"The U.S. is sending signals that Puerto Rico is no longer important, and that strengthens Puerto Rican identity and sense of nationality," said Noel Colon Martinez, a lawyer and constitutional expert. "It's natural for people to learn from their past experiences."

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