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Clemency and Vieques

by Lance Oliver

September 17, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Will the furor over President Clinton's parole of Puerto Rican prisoners affect the Vieques issue?

There are more angles to that question than found at a convention of trick-shot poolroom sharks.

At a press conference in San Juan last week, Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barceló said he thought the clemency issue could reverberate once the question of the Navy's use of Vieques comes to the forefront in Washington.

San Juan Mayor Sila Calderón said she thought the two issues would be dealt with separately.

Fernando Martín, the Puerto Rican Independence Party's candidate for mayor of San Juan said it could affect the Vieques issue, but it was hard to say for sure.

So there you have it: three parties, three candidates, three opinions.

The one thing that's certain is that the clemency issue has drawn more attention in Washington than most people expected ­ the kind of attention people wanted the Vieques issue to receive.

Puerto Ricans are more unanimous on their desire to see the Navy stop bombing Vieques than they are about the prisoners. On the question of Vieques, there is the closest thing to consensus you can find, short of asking who you favor in the Trinidad-de la Hoya fight. There are more ifs, ands and buts attached to the issue of the prisoners. Lots of sympathy for them because of the long sentences they were given, but some people have a few doubts, also.

The common thread is that both issues really come down to a decision by President Clinton. Usually, it's Congress that holds Puerto Rico's fate when controversies arise, but this time the buck stops in the Oval Office.

It was Clinton who had the power to offer clemency and did, only to face an overwhelming censure by the Congress. And it is Clinton who has the crucial say in deciding whether the Navy can hold on to Vieques and continue to use it for live bombing practice and other maneuvers.

Most people in the states assumed Clinton offered clemency to try to win votes for his wife in her likely run for Senate in New York. They believe that for two reasons. First, because of the general cynicism toward politics in the states these days, and the particular cynicism toward Clinton, much of which he fully earned through his lying and legal hair-splitting. And second, because the U.S. public had no idea that the clemency issue had been going on for years. To them, it popped up out of nowhere.

To those people, the Vieques issue will also come out of nowhere, even though it has been going on for half a century. Even one member of Congress said last week that the people of Vieques "all of a sudden" wanted the Navy to leave.

Now, assume that the federally appointed panel studying the Navy-Vieques issue turns in a report suggesting a compromise solution, such as allowing the Navy to keep Vieques but restricting the use of live ammunition and requiring face-saving measures such as a promise to help the local economy.

If Clinton went further and ordered the Navy to abandon Vieques, he would be seen by the U.S. public as doing another "favor" for Puerto Rico.

It may well be true that Clinton didn't discuss the clemency issue with his wife beforehand, as he asserts. But now that she has been buffeted by the issue and mishandled it politically, it would be impossible for him not to think about how another Puerto Rico controversy could affect her in New York.

So choose your scenario:

  • Already stung by charges he is soft on terrorists, Clinton will take the Navy's side to avoid being labeled one more time as the draft-dodger of old who is biased against the military and soft on national defense.
  • Having had one Puerto Rico issue blow up on his wife, he'll order the Navy out of Vieques to try to undo the damage.
  • Having had one Puerto Rico issue blow up on his wife, he'll let the Navy stay in Vieques to avoid another charge of pandering for Puerto Rican votes.
  • Or maybe he'll just rubber-stamp whatever decision the panel recommends and issue a press release announcing his action on Sunday night, when hardly anyone is in the White House press room, in hopes the whole thing will just slip by unnoticed.
  • Take your pick and place your bets. I don't pretend to know how this one will go.


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

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