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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 rousing.

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 at:

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