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January 2, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 

Puerto Rico in 2003! Which Events Stand Out?

In this first Herald edition of the new year, editors review the events of 2003, highlighting for readers those deemed most consequential to the lives and fortunes of Puerto Ricans as they begin 2004, the 87th year of their U.S. citizenship, the 106th of their island as a territory of the United States and the 52nd year of life under the Commonwealth system of government.

A rewind of the past twelve months brings striking images into focus: January - the U.S. Navy conducts its last training exercises on Vieques; February - Pedro Rosselló announces his return to politics; March - the Iraq war begins; April - the Montréal Expos take San Juan by storm; May - Governor Sila Calderón rules out a second term; June - former Supreme Court Justice Trias Monje dies at age 83; July - PDP candidate, José Alberto Hernández Mayoral, withdraws from the 2004 gubernatorial race; August - President George W. Bush confers the Presidential Medal of Freedom on the late Roberto Clemente; September - U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell scolds Governor Calderón for exceeding her authority; October - the U.S. President signs the bill that closes Roosevelt Roads as a Naval facility; November - Pedro Rosselló and Luis Fortuño win spots on the NPP 2004 ticket; and December - the White House announces the activation of a task force to determine Puerto Rico's political status options.

Herald readers repeatedly make clear that Puerto Rico political status is the lens through which they most often view news events of the day. This preference can be seen in reader response to the Hot Button Poll of December 19th. Six of ten respondents to the poll indicated that the subject areas most interesting to them related to the play of island politics as it relates to the official U.S. – Puerto Rico dialogue. As news breaks on the island, readers are likely to analyze how they will affect the attainment of political change or deepen the entrenchment of the status quo.

Attentive to this preference, Herald editors submit five events of 2003 that could significantly bear on the island’s political status. In chronological order, they are: the February reentry into politics of former Governor Pedro Rosselló; the March beginning of the Iraq war; the May 1st departure of the U.S. Navy from Vieques; and, later in the month, Governor Sila Calderón’s renunciation of a second term in office; and finally, the December White House announcement of a task force to recommend status options for Puerto Rico.

ROSSELLO RETURNS: (Hope for Statehooders)

The mid-February announcement by former Governor Pedro Rosselló, that he would abandon his teaching post in a mainland medical school and return to the island in June to pursue the New Progressive Party (NPP) candidacy for Governor in 2004, became a seminal event in that Party’s revival and positioning to replace the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) in executive control of the island.

Since winning the NPP primary against contender Carlos Pesquera, Rosselló has repeated his promise to move his statehood agenda if elected, first by asking the Puerto Rican electorate if it wants a non-colonial status (yes or no) and, if the answer is "yes," to take that result to the U.S. Congress for action. Then, from the lofty heights of La Fortaleza, press Washington for movement towards a status plebiscite.

For statehood advocates, Rosselló’s return to politics must be considered the banner event of 2003

THE IRAQ WAR: (An Opportunity for Separatists)

On March 19th, President George W. Bush began an invasion of Iraq, setting in motion a policy that would become costly in lives and national resources, especially for the men and women of the Armed Forces -- whether regular volunteers, reservists or members of the National Guard. In numbers disproportionate to its population, Puerto Rico provided military personnel to carry out the Commander-in-Chief’s Iraq objectives, this after responding to a previous call to arms to confront the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Now, almost ten months into the conflict, dissatisfaction is expressed nationally and in Puerto Rico, both about the progress of the pacification effort in Iraq and the validity of reasons presented by the Bush administration to justify the military involvement to begin with. Voices of dissent about the war can also be heard on the island, as the remains of the fallen are returned for burial. Thus far, 13 Puerto Ricans have been killed in hostile action in both conflicts and many more wounded, although the exact number has not been reported by the Department of Defense.

Dissatisfaction over Iraq could give separatist-minded Puerto Ricans an issue to motivate supporters. Independence Party (PIP) leaders have already asked the Governor to withhold the activation of National Guard units under her control and to demand the return of Puerto Rican soldiers from Iraq. Protracted rancor against the war could offer anti-American sentiment on the island another Vieques-style platform from which to proclaim their message of independence.

"ADIOS MARINEROS:" (Trouble for All Camps)

On May 1st, after three years of negotiations and protest, the U.S. Navy said goodbye to 60 years of use of its training facility on the island of Vieques, turning over the land to the U.S. Department of the Interior. Although the Navy’s discontinuance of maneuvers was generally favored by Puerto Rico´s population, the hostility and rancor that surrounded the process posed an embarrassment to moderate opinion and deep resentment in influential offices of the U.S. Congress.

For the first time in decades, Puerto Ricans were characterized as "unpatriotic" by U.S. officials concerned for the adequate training of units on their way to combat. Some Senators vowed to retaliate by blocking legislation favoring the island and assuring that the huge facility at Roosevelt Roads would be deactivated. That blow to the island’s economy was struck in October when the threat became law by a stroke of President Bush’s pen.

Puerto Rican politicians of all status persuasions are shaping the Vieques experience to their advantage. Separatists are gloating, claiming victory for Puerto Rican nationalism, "Populares" are squirming as the economic fall-out continues and statehooders are "spinning" the issue as the predictable consequence of Puerto Rico´s colonial condition.

It seems clear that Puerto Rican delegations approaching U.S. officials about status options must first ameliorate the lingering bitterness still heard in official Washington about the U.S. Navy’s loss of its land, sea and air training grounds in Puerto Rico.

"ADIOS GOBERNADORA:" (Anxiety for the Political Status Quo)

Governor Sila Calderón’s renunciation of a second term in office in May and the subsequent chaos it brought to the PDP, ranks it as a major event in the advancement of the status preference of her party, which is a Commonwealth relationship with the United States with enhanced powers and increased autonomy.

Her ineptitude in directing the inter-party politics of transition has left the PDP divided and in the hands of a man who had been a supporter but had become her nemesis. Now, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá must face the electorate in 2004 as the PDP’s third choice to lead the party to a consecutive term in control of the island’s executive branch.

Although her marks were not high in the administration of the island’s affairs, Sila Calderón carried off Commonwealth doublespeak with aplomb, proclaiming one thing in Washington in English and saying another in Spanish on the island. To sovereign nations, she played "head of state," to mainland politicians, she cast herself as a coequal with Governors of states of the Union.

Puerto Rico’s first woman Governor was effective in stalling the island’s growing statehood movement and giving voice to her party’s "best of both worlds" rhetoric. Her strategy to defer any consideration of a status change was effective, and until recently forestalled any movement by the White House to accommodate its political friends on the island. In Puerto Rico, she trumped any real dialogue about political status with "smoke and mirrors." In order to convince skeptics that she was open to political change, she established powerless commissions of politicians, charging them to seek "status consensus," an objective clearly not in their interests.

In loosing an effective advocate of the "status quo," now replaced by a weakened candidate to succeed her, the PDP may come to regret Doña Sila’s departure from Puerto Rico’s political scene.


The December White House announcement of a 16-member task force to recommend status options for Puerto Rico could denote the beginnings of a process of self-determination for the island that was truncated when the locally sanctioned plebiscite of 1999 produced a slight majority for a "none of the above" option and the PDP took control of La Forteleza.

Begun in the waning days of the Clinton administration, the task force structure was continued by the incoming Bush administration, but remained un-staffed and inactive for three years, mainly due to PDP lobbying against it. In March, however, when Ruben Barrales, the Director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, visited Puerto Rico, he announced that the Bush administration intended to address the status issue and hinted that he saw the viable future status options as limited to statehood and independence. That statement struck fear into the breasts of some and joy to the hearts of others.

The task force will conduct interviews and review legal findings and report to the President as to whether Puerto Rico should become a state, an independent country, continue as a U.S. commonwealth or move to some other constitutionally acceptable political status. Already the task force is receiving solicitations from interested parties who wish to arm the members with their vision of Puerto Rico’s future.

Continuation of the White House task force fulfills a campaign promise made by the Bush administration to seek solutions for Puerto Rico’s territorial status. The group must issue its report within two years but it could come sooner. Destined to continue to be a newsmaker in 2004, the activation of the Presidential task force on political status can be considered a significant event on the status front in the year just past.

What do you think? What single event of 2003 is destined to be most important in the perpetual quest of Puerto Ricans to obtain a permanent political status?

Please select from the choices above!

This Week's Question:
What single event of 2003 is destined to be most important in the perpetual quest of Puerto Ricans to obtain a permanent political status?

US . Residents
. PR
Pedro Rosselló’s Return 32%
10% The Iraq War 5%
32% The U.S. Navy Leaves Vieques 33%
6% Governor Sila Calderón Withdraws 9%
26% White House Status Task Force Formed 21%


.To submit your idea for a future PR Herald poll question or "Hot Button" issue, please click here.

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