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Orlando Sentinel

Parties Face Off Over Possible Recruiting Of High-Schoolers

By Iván Román

January 26, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The white-haired man in the traditional "Uncle Sam Wants You" recruiting posters may not be around anymore, but the Bush administration has found a way to revive its ghost everywhere. Even in the tropics.

Not only is the pitch more sophisticated with glossy magazine ads promising bored teenagers days of adventure or the thrill of soaring jets à la Top Gun, but now the government wants to expand its reach by getting a massive database of potential recruits from schools.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires students in schools that receive Title I education funds be included in a list of names, addresses, phone numbers and other personal information to be handed over to military recruiters. The law says the student or his/her parents may refuse in writing to have the information released to the U.S. armed forces.

Pro-independence activists in Puerto Rico are screaming bloody murder, blasting the island's government for implicitly backing the military's efforts and not doing enough to inform Puerto Rico's 150,000 high-school students of their rights to refuse. Activists started handing out fliers last week in some of the island's 209 high schools, equipped with a form to detach and hand in to school officials certifying that they won't participate.

The law also requires that schools give military recruiters the same access to students that prospective employers, private companies and other organizations enjoy.

"The schools in Puerto Rico are being blackmailed into recruiting," said María de Lourdes Santiago, vice president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, known as the PIP. "How many dollars and cents are the lives of Puerto Ricans worth?"

The New York Civil Liberties Union has also targeted the law and urges school officials and parents to watch for this possible invasion of privacy and to make saying no as easy and unintimidating as possible.

But in Puerto Rico, the controversy is less about a right to privacy than about ideology and politics. Students have fought hard and shed blood to keep ROTC classrooms off college campuses in the past, and this -- coupled with demonstrations last week blocking access to ROTC facilities -- threatens to revive the conflict over the military in schools.

The PIP's campaign spurred a forceful tongue-lashing from Gov. Sila Calderón, who called them "separatists" whose agenda vastly differed from her own.

Calderón's Popular Democratic Party is the flag-bearer for the current commonwealth status, established in 1952, that supporters say gives Puerto Rico a certain degree of autonomy and space to preserve its language and cultural identity while securing a common market, currency and citizenship with the United States. Its critics call it little more than a dressed-up colony.

"In Puerto Rico's schools, we are definitely not going to allow people to come and do politics," Calderón said. "This government is not an anti-American one. This government follows federal laws and official actions so whatever has to be done in the schools will be done in the schools."

Pro-statehood politicians also condemned the PIP's campaign. But statements from Calderón's camp defending the U.S. military drew chuckles from those who blamed her for pushing Puerto Rico away from Washington with her insistence that the Navy stop bombing and leave the offshore island of Vieques.

Just how an issue of human rights got intermingled in the complex fight over political status and loyalty to the United States was at the heart of the Vieques controversy.

If the independentistas have their way, this latest clash centered in schools -- often the stage for similar struggles over what to teach about language, history and culture -- promises to do the same.

"This opens many people's eyes and makes them wonder when the government talks about a real Puerto Rican agenda, if they are truly speaking from the heart," the PIP's Santiago said.

In the meantime, the PIP and other pro-independence activists will be fighting to gain access to schools to counter the military recruiters' pitches in classrooms and cafeterias.

"If they are going to give access to recruiters in schools, those of us who are against this recruitment want equal time," said Sen. Fernando Martín, the PIP's executive president. "You can bet on that."

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