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Puerto Rico's Latest Five Minutes Almost in the Spotlight

by Lance Oliver

August 20, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Most of the time, Washington ignores Puerto Rico and the muddy waters of island politics roil on just the same, churning with the usual energetic fervor and keeping the political writers busy. But lately, the movers and shakers in the U.S. political firmament have paid a flurry of attention to the island.

Bill Bradley is (he hopes) the mover and Jesse Jackson is the epitome of a shaker, but more on them later. The top story came from the White House, where President Clinton finally took action, after years of lobbying and thousands of petition signatures, on the issue of the Puerto Ricans in U.S. prisons for pro-independence activities.

Some call them common criminals, some call them patriotic Puerto Ricans who are political prisoners, but Clinton, following his usual approach, waffled in between and managed to please very few people. While the prisoners' supporters had hoped for a presidential pardon, as Jimmy Carter gave to the independentistas who shot at members of Congress in the Capitol in 1954, Clinton instead offered parole.

The offer came with a long list of conditions typical of a parole: reporting in regularly to a parole officer, holding down a job, getting permission before traveling or moving, etc. Those restrictions, while not unusual, are problematic enough for prisoners who do not recognize U.S. jurisdiction over Puerto Rico and consider it an illegal colonial situation under international law.

Other aspects are even greater sticking points, however. The offer requires the prisoners to ask Clinton for the clemency. Some see this as an apology for what they did. Other difficult conditions include renouncing the use of violence for any purpose and not associating with anyone convicted of a crime, which would include other independentistas who have also engaged in civil disobedience for their cause.

It may be weeks before the prisoners decide whether to accept the terms. If they do not, the lobbying on their behalf will again resume.

Meanwhile, Jesse Jackson wrapped up his Puerto Rico tour in support of local efforts to get the Navy out of Vieques. Jackson's landing on Vieques differed greatly in style from the usual storming of shores that Navy troops practice. Four men carried Jackson from boat to shore so he wouldn't get his loafers or pants wet.

His visit caused hopes to surge that finally the United States would start paying attention to Vieques. How could they ignore Jesse Jackson attacking the Navy?

The other visit was by former Senator and current presidential candidate Bill Bradley, who made news by promising that as president he would support the further development of the commonwealth status, giving Puerto Rico greater rights and responsibilities.

Bradley's speech illustrated the hazards of the increasingly common practice among politicians of endorsing a presidential candidate very early.

Pro-commonwealth leaders who had already endorsed Al Gore suddenly had reason to chew on their words and wonder, just as Republicans in other corners of the United States will probably find themselves losing enthusiasm for their endorsements of George W. Bush once he finally takes some stands.

What's the lesson in these interventions from the north? Maybe one lesson we in Puerto Rico need to learn (and re-learn, as we periodically forget) is not to get our hopes up.

Over the weekend, I talked to a very knowledgeable man, a Puerto Rican intellectual who lives in the states and therefore knows how things work there. Surely, he told me, the confluence of these events would force the media to cover Puerto Rico now. The prisoners, Jackson, all of it. And he wasn't alone, as many people in Puerto Rico were certain that Jackson's presence would make Vieques the important issue in the states that it has been here. Puerto Rico would absolutely be on the front page of the Washington Post by Monday, he predicted.

Of course it wasn't. It almost never is.

Given the one-way mirror between Puerto Rico and Washington, in which Puerto Rico minutely examines every eye-twitch in Washington while Washington resolutely ignores Puerto Rico, it's easy to expect imminent salvation from afar. Easy, but almost always wrong.

If the political prisoners reject Clinton's terms, as is likely, the years-long campaign to get them released will go on, little different from before.

If the Navy leaves Vieques, it will not be because Jesse Jackson chased them out, but because of the findings of the panel ordered by the president and the political considerations surrounding the issue.

And Bill Bradley is not likely to resolve Puerto Rico's political status issue anytime soon, either as a presidential candidate or even as president, should he be lucky enough to become one.

For the most part, when the honchos from up north stick their toes in Puerto Rican political waters, it's just for a minute. Then the current immediately fills the space as soon as they leave and it's left to Puerto Ricans themselves to try to direct their course toward the future.


Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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