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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 something.

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 occurrence.

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 at:

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