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PUERTO RICO REPORT
The End Of "Consensus"
by Lance Oliver
February 4, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
Now rises the cry from the betrayed land: The consensus is
lost. Pedro Rosselló has given in, surrendered, turned
traitor on us all.
Vieques is lost.
Well, to turn down the melodrama a notch, the end of "consensus"
among the political parties in Puerto Rico was as predictable
as daily sunsets, easterly winds and an increased likelihood of
hurricanes in September.
The "consensus," so genuinely prized by many ordinary
Puerto Ricans in a place so routinely divided by politics, was
always a mile wide and an inch deep. Once Rosselló struck
a deal with the White House and the Navy for an eventual withdrawal
of the Navy from Vieques, there was no hope the agreement between
the island's three political parties could last, especially in
an election year.
The deal Rosselló agreed to essentially allows the Navy
to resume training, but with inert ordnance instead of live bombs
and on a limited basis, and calls for $40 million in federal assistance
for the small island. Further, Vieques residents will vote in
a referendum for one of two choices: the Navy leaves in three
years or the Navy remains and attempts to secure an additional
$50 million in federal aid.
If the process of getting the Navy to leave Vieques were seen
by most people in Puerto Rico as an issue to be negotiated, Rosselló's
decision would be hailed as a good deal. It accomplishes the
major goals of ending live bombing, removing the Navy from the
island and providing money to deal with the health and environmental
problems that have resulted from 50 years of military training.
This standoff, however, was never seen by most people in Puerto
Rico as an issue to be negotiated. It quickly became a moral
question, nearly a holy war.
People don't want to negotiate an exit by the Navy. They want
it gone, now. Asking them to cut a deal is like trying to get
hard-line anti-abortion opponents in the states to negotiate over
the differences between first- and second-trimester abortions.
They won't negotiate because on a moral issue there is no room
for negotiation or compromise. And while Washington sees a disagreement
to be negotiated, people in Puerto Rico see a moral issue.
Rosselló helped paint himself into this corner by joining
the cry of "not one more," referring to bombs in Vieques.
Such catchy rhetoric makes for good slogans and popular bumper
stickers, and this one is rolling around Puerto Rico on the backsides
of many a car these days. But stirring words make for poor eating
when reality sets in and negotiations yield results that are less
Is an inert bomb still a "bomb?" Does it matter
or does anyone care?
Criticism by Sila Calderón and the other leaders of
the Popular Democratic Party of the deal Rosselló struck
is disingenuous. They complain there is no guarantee the Navy
will leave in three years, but there can be none; what one president
and Congress do, others can always undo.
There was never any realistic hope the Navy would pack up and
leave overnight without any time to find an alternative training
site, but by helping to set expectations so high (with Rosselló's
own participation), the leaders of both the PDP and the Puerto
Rican Independence Party ensured Rosselló would either
be a failure or a traitor.
If he stuck to his position of an immediate and total withdrawal
of the Navy ("not one more") in the face of a hostile
Congress, stubborn Navy and a White House where his political
capital is considerable but not infinite, he would have achieved
no resolution. As it is, by accepting even a favorable agreement,
he is branded a traitor by those who are free to criticize because
they are not in his shoes (yet, anyway, in the case of Calderón).
Now, "consensus" can be laid to rest but the issue
of Vieques cannot. Rosselló promised cooperation in removing
protesters from Navy land while the PIP reaffirmed its commitment
to those protests. One can imagine more ways for that standoff
to end badly than ways it could end quietly.
And what happens during the next three years? Conflicts between
Navy personnel and locals as a result of resentment stoked by
optimistic beliefs the Navy would leave instantly? Will there
be more incursions onto Navy land and more protests? Maybe even
another death or two?
Might all of that lead a new president to decide to scrap the
Rosselló-Clinton agreement and let the Navy stay?
We can hope not. But this agreement hardly means the question
of Vieques has been answered.
Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly
for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email