Pandering In The Symbolism Of Sovereignty

by John Marino

November 29, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOGov. Calderón has been in office for nearly half her term, and if anything, she's shown the hazards of a commonwealth supporter venturing out into the world, to the United States mainland, and to capitals in the Caribbean and Latin American region.

She's open to all the usual criticism from independentistas launched as well against statehood governors - that of cow-towing to the United States, allegedly against the best interests of Puerto Rico. But she's also open to heated attacks from island statehooders, who turn any complaint - or difference of opinion - with the United States into evidence of "separatist" tendencies.

Putting aside all the partisan rhetoric, the mountains of it, this is a decided disadvantage for the pro-commonwealth Calderón. That's not necessarily where most critics say, in Washington, DC, but rather back home in San Juan, where the two-gang attack is most noticeable, and newsworthy.

There is little chance of Puerto Rico slipping away from the powerful sphere of U.S. influence that imbues life here during the Calderón administration, no matter what the governor does. And if anything, the governor has shown more of an interest in trying to improve public administration than trying to improve commonwealth.

Nevertheless, it's at least debatable that the vulnerability of commonwealth in the national and international spheres is a real weakness for Puerto Rico's first executive.

Firstly, there's a danger that the governor would not be in as strong a position, at least in terms of criticism back home, when Puerto Rico has a real battle with the federal government - not at all an unusual circumstance for most states, it needs to be noted. Nowhere is this clearer than Vieques.

Even before Calderón took office, she was hounded by federal and commonwealth officials calling on her to uphold current agreements and accusing her of angling to break them. Yet, six months after the death of civilian security guard David Sanes Rodríguez, former Gov. Pedro Rosselló was able to warn the Senate Armed Forces Committee "Don't push it" by trying to take out protesters camped on the Navy Vieques bombing range. He was cheered and no one criticized him for being a separatist. Meanwhile, all Calderón's initial moves in office regarding Vieques - from pushing forward health studies to filing regulations and lawsuits to withdrawing the police riot squad from Camp García - were challenged on such grounds.

Much of the criticism is partisan wind bagging. On one level, it doesn't matter what Calderón does or says, there's always a status argument to be made against it by critics from all points of view. Any movement toward regional interaction - a far cry from integration - by the Calderón administration has been met with such criticism.

That isn't good, since such interaction for Puerto Rico is both natural and healthy, especially when it involves trying to boost trade between Puerto Rico and its neighbors. Again, former Gov. Rosselló scampered around much of the western hemisphere during his eight years in power, and as a statehooder, he was never accused of "playing the Republic" as Calderón was earlier this month.

But it's also true that the Calderón administration has brought much of the criticism on itself by pandering in the symbolism of sovereignty. Nowhere was that more apparent than during Calderón's recent trip to the Dominican Republic to attend the Ibero-American annual meeting. La Fortaleza aides apparently alerted the local press that Calderón would get certain privileges afforded sovereign leaders - such important matters as taking part in official photographs, getting picked up at the airport and using the VIP entrance and seating sections - but were left with egg on their face when they did not materialize.

More importantly, Puerto Rico was apparently snubbed in its efforts to win a permanent invitation to the meeting. U.S. officials apparently alerted Dominican officials that it would "inappropriate" for the Puerto Rico delegation to be granted such privileges as a US territory and Dominican officials agreed. Previously, the Calderón administration had sought "associate member" status in the Association of Caribbean States, a move also rejected by the U.S. State Department and attacked by Calderón's opponents.

Puerto Rico politicians have a long history of talking out of both sides of their mouths, one side usually directed towards Washington and the other towards San Juan. And Calderón has at times increased this delicate balancing act by presenting Puerto Rico as something like a sovereign nation at certain times and as an integral part of the United States at others.

The double-talk is part of a larger problem within the Popular Democratic Party, whose members have wildly different opinions of just what the status option they all support is. Some see it as pretty close to sovereignty, while others view it as near statehood.

Calderón's attempts to "appear" as the president of a republic during the Dominican Republic trip is an attempt to maneuver through the various images of commonwealth emanating from within the PDP. But it's a path fraught with hazards, risking not only effective political attacks by opponents but also the more serious danger of undercutting the real purpose of such travel by government officials, primarily boosting commerce.

With PDP senators and representatives taking trips to Mexico, France and elsewhere in an attempt to "internationalize" Puerto Rico, party officials are looking more like tourists than frequent flier business travelers.  

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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