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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 issue.

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 at:

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