The ROTC Litmus Test

by John Marino

March 5, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. At most campuses across the United States, it would be seen as a fight between students who support the military and those who oppose it.

But since it is occurring at the University of Puerto Rico, the battle over whether the Reserve Officers Training Corps program should remain on the public university’s campuses is being painted as a political issue between students who want to strengthen Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States and those who want to separate from the United States and create an independent Puerto Rico.

And because this is an election year, a debate between students on campus has been magnified into a full-blown political issue.

The New Progressive Party Governing Board passed a resolution this week supporting the permanence of the ROTC at UPR campuses, as reports indicated Puerto Rico’s oldest and most prestigious university could lose millions in federal funding if it decided to kick the program off campus.

Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, the Popular Democratic Party’s gubernatorial candidate, rebuffed reporters’ attempts to determine where he stands on the matter.

"I have to respect university autonomy...The university must make its own decision," Acevedo Vilá said.

His running mate, Sen. Roberto Prats, the PDP’s resident commissioner candidate, was equally non-committal on the issue. While he said he supported "demilitarization" in public schools, he added: "It would not be wise to intervene in university autonomy."

The PDP is alone in its obscurity on the issue. While the NPP had no problem supporting the continued presence of the ROTC at UPR through a resolution passed this week, Puerto Rican Independence Party President Rubén Berríos made it clear the party wanted to end the presence of the U.S. military at all public educational facilities.

Berríos challenged both Acevedo Vilá and Rosselló to say whether they support keeping the ROTC on university campuses or removing it, arguing the university community deserves to know where all three gubernatorial candidates stand on the issue. But the challenge is most directly up to the PDP president, given the NPP’s action this week.

Acevedo Vilá and Prats should clearly state their position on the matter, thereby getting rid of what should be a non-issue in the campaign.

UPR President Antonio García said that the institution did not "have the luxury" of ending ROTC at the UPR because it could lose more than $60 million in federal funding over the next year. He was backed up by the UPR Board of Trustees, which said its policy continued to be the permanence of ROTC, as well as the right of students to protest it.

The federal funds are at stake because relatively recent legislation blocks research grants and other federal funding from certain agencies for universities that decline to allow the ROTC a place on campus. Ivy League schools that currently don’t have the military training program are reportedly rethinking their ROTC policy with a mind to increasing federal funding.

UPR officials are right to make it clear that institution will continue to support the program. That’s the sober, clear-minded thinking that government officials should give on the matter. And it’s the kind of logic that potential office holders should not fail to employ when asked.

The presence of the ROTC on campus has long been a lightning rod for student protest at the UPR, going back to at least the 1960s and popular discontent over the Vietnam War.

Mass suspensions took place in 1967 during campus disturbances stemming from ROTC protests, which became increasingly violent over the next few years. A stray bullet struck down student Antonia Martínez during a disturbance in 1970, and a year latter two police officers were killed during additional protests.

In the wake of the violence, the ROTC center was moved off the main campus to a location just adjacent to it, and agreement was forged with police not to send riot police on to the campus, a pact that extends to today.

Protests were again stoked by the drive to get the Navy to stop war games on Vieques. One student was convicted for assaulting an ROTC officer in 2001.

Since September, students at the UPR Mayaguez campus have held a "protest camp" against the ROTC facility. They even took over the building for a 24-hour period. Last month, the ROTC building at the UPR Ponce campus was firebombed. No arrests have been made.

A movement is afoot on campus to have students vote on the matter. Both the PDP and NPP student groups back a student referendum on the matter. Ironically, only the Students General Council, which considers itself the only valid voice on behalf of the student body, objects to a campus-wide vote.

While such a move could prove to be an interesting civics lesson, it won’t carry much weight. After all, students back in the 1960s voted the ROTC program off campus in a similar referendum, yet the program remains.

Holding such a vote could create false expectations. Despite the consequences, young students, buffeted from real world concerns by campus life, may opt to vote the ROTC off campus to make a political statement or demonstrate against militarization.

But with millions in federal funding at stake, not a politician in the real world would do so. Acevedo Vilá and his running mate need to make that clear.

John Marino, Managing 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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