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PUERTO RICO REPORT
Consensus And Debates On Vieques
by Lance Oliver
December 10, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
Carlos Pesquera is a brave man or a foolish politician.
Why? Simply because he has dared to apply reason and reality
to the Vieques issue instead of the rhetoric of absolutism and
anger. His position may be reasonable, but it probably won't
win him lots of votes.
Nothing Pesquera said was radical. He recognized that although
President Clinton's proposal for ending the Vieques situation
fell short of Puerto Rico's wishes, it also fell short, perhaps
by a greater distance, of the Navy's desires. He recognized that
plans to end the use of live ammunition and eventually phase out
the Navy's use of the island were big steps forward.
That was not the reaction from most of the people opposed to
the Navy's presence in Vieques. Given that the Navy has been
bombing Vieques with impunity for half a century, Clinton's proposal
represented a great advance for Puerto Rico, but it was greeted
with long faces and headlines that screamed about "disappointment."
The broad public support for the cause led many within it to
believe the Navy would be packing its bags and moving out any
day now. Unrealistic expectations were raised, leading to disappointment
with what was, in reality, good news.
Others, especially within the New Progressive Party, share
Pesquera's point of view, but most of them are keeping their thoughts
to themselves. Unlike the candidate for governor, they are under
less pressure to issue public pronouncements on every current
Ironically, it is Gov. Pedro Rosselló, a man not running
for anything, who sounds like the political candidate, while Pesquera
has taken on a position less likely to win votes. Rosselló
took the absolutist approach, rejecting the Clinton compromise,
as did Sila Calderón, who is running for something,
at the potential expense of Pesquera.
The organized opposition to the Navy is trying to eliminate
room for negotiation. Anything less than the absolutist position
adopted by the anti-Navy movement, Rosselló, Rubén
Berríos, et. al., is scorned as something akin to treason.
The most treasured word of the moment is "consensus."
Given the dictionary definition of consensus as "an opinion
held by all or most," there is consensus in Puerto Rico that
the Navy should leave Vieques.
On an island of 3.8 million people, however, there can never
be unanimous agreement, although some try to argue that such agreement
does exist. It is talked and written about like a Christmas miracle,
the rare time that normally divided Puerto Ricans came together
with one mind. It's a highly attractive concept for a people
who want to be united, but are often deeply divided by politics
and fundamental questions such as status.
But the consensus, though a mile wide, is shallow. Get into
the details and all kinds of opinions emerge.
One man swore to me that there is consensus that the Navy should
leave Vieques but not close any other bases. Yet the Puerto Rican
Independence Party continues to favor demilitarization of the
island, and while the government wants the Southern Command here,
protesters in the streets have made it clear they do not.
More differences arose when Macheteros fugitive Filiberto Ojeda
gave interviews promising a violent response if the Navy resumes
its activities on Vieques. From Vieques community leaders to
officials at La Fortaleza, violence was repudiated as a tactic.
Despite these differences, the effort to maintain a "consensus"
in favor of immediate and permanent cessation of Navy activities
remains strong. Any politician, such as Pesquera, who suggests
negotiation instead of the absolutist position, runs the risk
of being painted as a pushover or having been bought off by Washington.
There are dangers in the absolutist position, however. Rejecting
Clinton's compromise could lead to a backlash. Although Clinton
gave no guarantees about when the Navy would leave Vieques, he
at least went on record as saying that was the commander-in-chief's
intention. Depending on next year's presidential elections, his
replacement may be less sympathetic, in which case even a former
president's word would be helpful leverage to have.
By staking out a no-compromise position, Rosselló and
others are gambling they'll gain more ground. It is a gamble,
however, because leaving the question open also keeps alive the
possibility of losing more ground, especially if their bargaining
position comes to be seen in Washington as unreasonable.
Meanwhile, allowing competing opinions to be heard may mar
the façade of consensus, but it will lead to something
even better: a free flow of ideas. That's good news for those
who believe that the more ideas are heard, the more the good ones
come to the forefront.
Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly
for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email