It’s Now Hip To Be Arrested For Your Political Beliefs

by John Marino

July 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOFor many Puerto Ricans, like many Americans, the Fourth of July celebration is nothing more than a long summer weekend.

But for Puerto Ricans with an attitude about the United States -- any attitude, it seems -- there was an activity to suit their tastes on Independence Day.

The big party was being given by the pro-statehood administration of San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini outside Hiram Birthorn stadium.

Thousands of pro-statehood, unabashed supporters of the American Way were expected to show up at the event, waving American flags, and many dressed in red, white and blue clothing.

The official government Fourth of July activity, put on by the pro-commonwealth administration of Gov. Calderón, was expected to be a more sober affair at a newly built arts promenade in Caguas. The event, held in honor of Sept. 11 rescue workers, would have fireworks as well, but not the same level of enthusiasm as that expected to emanate from the New Progressive Party celebration downtown.

Meanwhile, a coalition of pro-independence groups were gearing up to stage a protest outside Fort Buchanan in Guaynabo to show their opposition to the "dangerous policies implemented by dangerous groups of rightist extremists in power in the United States," according to one organizer.

The Fourth of July here is just the first holiday which makes up a very political month in Puerto Rico reaching a crescendo on July 25: which serves as a triple anniversary for the landing of U.S. troops, the birth of the commonwealth status and the double murders on Cerro Maravilla.

It’s no wonder that the so-called "flag wars" -- now in their second year, and perhaps well on their way to becoming a tradition -- should erupt as a prelude to this political month.

Last year, the confrontation was at the so-called "Loma del los Vientos," a windswept hill across from the Capitol where a replica of the Vieques chapel built by protesters on the Navy bombing range was erected. When a group of young statehood supporters attempted to raise a U.S. flag where the Vieques flag stood, a tense stand-off ensued between them and pro-independence supporters inside the chapel.

This year’s flag wars reached their crescendo on the march on the Women’s Affairs Advocate Office, where a group of statehood supporters, led by New Progressive Party President Carlos Pesquera, wanted to raise the U.S. flag in the lobby of the agency. María Dolores Fernos, the office’s director, stupidly decided to fly the Puerto Rican flag alone there.

It would be nice to hear some perspective on the flag war phenomenon, but the local press has utterly missed the larger questions surrounding this year’s controversy, preferring instead to revel in the specifics of the incident.

No news reports have tried to analyze why Pesquera and a group of lawmakers decided to storm the office after being barred from it. None has spoken either of how Pesquera has so far skillfully maneuvered in the incident’s aftermath -- which included being charged with rioting — turning it into a referendum on the Calderón administration.

Popular TV commentator Carmen Jovet dedicated her hour-long Sunday night show to Pesquera and the storming of the Old San Juan office. Pesquera also granted a lengthy interview to the Associated Press about the subject on Tuesday, when he was booked on rioting charges at Police Headquarters. TV news reports and daily newspapers have breathlessly reported on the controversy since it erupted June 20.

Last week, this column discussed one possible motive behind Pesquera’s actions: to crush potential rivals within the NPP by appealing to the party base’s desire for a "man of action."

The tumultuous Vieques issue, which prompted hundreds of respected Puerto Ricans to be arrested in acts of civil disobedience over the last two years, has also made an imprint on the Puerto Rican psyche. It’s now hip to be arrested for your political beliefs: a fact that Pesquera appears intent to play up to the hilt. But you won’t read about that in local newspapers.

It’s not just that the press has reported the story badly. It has also been a too willing participant in this year’s controversy.

Local reporters and photographers appeared eager to serve as witnesses in the criminal proceedings against the NPP members fingered in the melee. While under the power of subpoena, members of the press are obliged to testify to criminal acts they witness, they should also try to avoid giving such testimony at all costs. Instead a few reporters and photographers who were roughed up in the incident raised their hands to tell all to Justice Department investigators.

Ditto for the news organizations who eagerly coughed up their unedited video footage of the incident to authorities.

If it were the Navy asking for such cooperation during a melee with Vieques protesters, I don’t think the local media would have acted in the same way.

But you won’t hear local journalist groups doing any soul-searching about this. They were too worried about getting photos of Pesquera being booked.

The Puerto Rico Journalists Association was pressing Tuesday for Police Superintendent Miguel Pereira to allow island news media to photograph Pesquera and other NPP officials being fingerprinted, or to release mug shots taken of them by police. Association President Daisey Sánchez threatened to take court action if her request was denied -- which it was.

What she may not know is that is probably just what Pesquera wants, a picture of himself being fingerprinted on the front page of every newspaper in Puerto Rico.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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