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PUERTO RICO REPORT
Sweeping Up After The Vieques March
by Lance Oliver
February 25, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
Now that the march of thousands (choose your favorite estimate
of the attendance, but by any measure a lot of people turned out
for Monday's walk down the expressway) has ended, everybody wants
The clergy who were among the primary organizers of the event
want to meet with President Clinton to reopen talks about the
Navy leaving Vieques.
Popular Democratic Party candidate for governor Sila Calderón
wants the four main presidential candidates, along with New York
senatorial candidate Hillary Clinton and her probable opponent,
New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, to intercede on behalf of Vieques
with the president.
Her opponent in this year's election, Carlos Pesquera, wants
us to believe that such marches are "anti-American"
and endanger federal programs in Puerto Rico and could even move
the U.S. Congress to unilaterally declare the island independent.
Gov. Pedro Rosselló wants us to listen to the "silent
majority," which he presumes is on his side and thinks the
plan for the Navy to leave Vieques in three years is just fine.
Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barceló wants us to
believe the turnout was disappointingly low. His efforts at political
spin showed all the adeptness one would expect from a double amputee
who is a former chainsaw juggler.
Can they all be disappointed? It actually seems likely.
In Puerto Rico, mass demonstrations such as Monday's Vieques
march are a favored means of expressing grievances with the government.
But how effective are they?
Monday's march was probably the biggest the island has ever
seen, challenged only by the march in opposition to the sale of
the Puerto Rico Telephone Company. The latter didn't stop Rosselló
from selling the telephone company and the former is unlikely
to convince Clinton to revise his plans for Vieques.
To be practical about all this, Clinton faces pressures from
all sides during those few moments he devotes to the issue of
Vieques. He not only must consider what he believes is the "right"
thing to do. He also inevitably thinks about the pressure from
the Navy, which wants to take the easy way out and keep Vieques
forever; pressure from Puerto Ricans and allies in New York, where
his wife and his vice president, Al Gore, are both seeking votes;
pressure from Congress, which could try to impose an arrangement
of its own on Vieques if a majority perceives the president is
going too far toward appeasing Puerto Rico and not listening sufficiently
to the Navy; and, atop all this, how will history judge this tiny
little action among his many actions.
Note that nowhere on this list do 85,000 non-voting Puerto
Ricans figure in. So will Clinton meet with the Puerto Rican
clergy? Possibly. Will he sweeten his offer? Unlikely.
Clinton's resolution of the Vieques dispute is already seen
in the Republican-controlled Congress as generous to Puerto Rico.
If he goes further and angers hard-liners such as James Inhofe
and Frank Murkowski, who are grudgingly and grumpily putting up
with the current deal, he risks moving Congress to step in and
try to come up with its own plan, one that is more likely to be
more favorable to the Navy than to Puerto Rico.
Clinton, the master of compromise and political positioning,
has gone to the precisely calculated point that represents exactly
how far he can go. History shows he rarely goes further.
Meanwhile, the candidates for governor, now freed from adherence
to any ephemeral "consensus," have returned to the age-old
partisan script. As I noted in a previous piece, Calderón
is free to criticize and claim she would have done better since
she won't immediately have to prove it. She is taking full advantage
of her position to play to the crowd.
But what about Pesquera? He sounds less like an inspiring
new candidate on the scene and more like Rosselló's younger
brother, more or less the same slogans with a few words changed
here and there and spoken with a bit less stridency.
Why has he returned to the uninspiring scare tactics of saying
that public dissent could lead to Washington taking away money
or U.S. citizenship? He raised the specter of Congress unilaterally
declaring Puerto Rico independent, as if dragging the ultimate
monster out of the closet, and as if that were a reasonably likely
A radio talk show in San Juan jokingly "reported"
recently that Pesquera was withdrawing his nomination because
he wasn't catching on with the voters and he wanted to give another
candidate a chance. Several New Progressive Party members called
in to praise his decision, not knowing it was a prank.
Trying to scare people into supporting the Vieques agreement
by claiming they might lose their PAN check or their U.S. citizenship
is not likely to boost Pesquera's campaign. Such tactics more
likely mean that Pesquera, like the others involved, is unlikely
to get what he wants.
Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly
for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email