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On the Discomfort of Civil Disobedience

by Lance Oliver

October 1, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Having come late to the Vieques party, statehooders are now standing in a corner, whispering about whether they should dance or play it safe and just watch from the shadows.

The discussion arises because New Progressive Party president and candidate for governor Carlos Pesquera has spoken favorably of the acts of civil disobedience by Puerto Rican Independence Party President Rubén Berríos and others who have been illegally occupying Navy land on Vieques for months. They say they plan to keep protesting until the Navy leaves Vieques or drags them away.

The issue is more of a problem for the NPP than for the other two parties. On a descending scale of discomfort, we begin with the PIP, for which the issue is automatic. They have nothing to lose and much to gain by defying the Navy and the federal government.

One of the criticisms of the PIP and Berríos (aside from the fact that the latter has been president of the former for so long that the two are hardly distinguishable any more) by other independentistas is that the party was not active or radical enough. It had grown comfortable and complacent and that's why, so goes the theory, it is now in danger of losing its electoral franchise, which would cost it a position on the ballot and government funds.

Berríos has been here before, more than 20 years ago, when the issue was getting the Navy to leave Culebra. He clearly stands to gain from the Navy-Vieques confrontation, no matter how it turns out.

The Popular Democratic Party comes in second on the discomfort scale. While it has not been as vocal as the PIP, it has long supported the idea of the Navy leaving Vieques. Nobody really doubts the sincerity of the PDP's opposition to the Navy's presence. Maybe for that reason, or maybe because she has a city to run, or maybe because of simple machismo, nobody is suggesting Sila María Calderón has to give up her pumps and makeup and start slapping at sand fleas at a rustic camp on Vieques to prove herself.

That's not the case with the NPP, and that's why Pesquera and company rank a solid first on the Vieques discomfort scale.

The NPP, always avoiding the appearance of "anti-Americanism," which is hard to reconcile with a desire for statehood, had not hammered the Vieques issue for many years, until the fatal bombing accident occurred in April. Only after the accident did Gov. Pedro Rosselló demand the Navy return the island to Puerto Rican control.

Now the statehooders are in a position of trying to figure out the best approach to an issue that has created unusual consensus in Puerto Rico but is seen differently in the states, especially on Capitol Hill.

Rosselló and others in the party have said that civil disobedience is not the way to go. They argue that lobbying and lawsuits are the tools to use to win the battle of Vieques. They have not received with enthusiasm the favorable comments by Pesquera about the Vieques sit-in and they would probably be appalled if he actually joined Berríos and company and started growing a beard of his own.

There are only two reasons Pesquera would even consider such an idea. For one, he is currently playing to a single audience: the Puerto Rican electorate. Should he win election next year, he will then have to worry about what Washington thinks. But if he doesn't get the approval of about 1 million Puerto Rican voters next November, Washington won't think of him at all because he'll be just another engineering professor.

The other reason he must show overt sympathy for the anti-Navy movement is because he, like the party, came late to the issue. That means he has more to prove than his two opponents in the election, Calderón and Berríos.

The wisest strategy, probably, is to keep saying nice things about the protesters but be too busy to join them. At this dance, the independentistas are in the spotlight at the center of the floor while the populares keep the rhythm at the edge. Pesquera is still hanging out by the punch bowl, where many members of his party hope he'll stay.


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

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