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Puerto Ricans Celebrate U.S. Citizenship; Rally Tries to Counter Image Left by Protests Of Navy Target Range

by John Marino

March 6, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE WASHINGTON POST CO. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, March 5 -- Concerned that Puerto Rico is gaining an anti-American image, leaders of the pro- statehood New Progressive Party and tens of thousands of supporters celebrated their U.S. citizenship today in a rally on the grounds of the island's Capitol.

Waving U.S. flags, participants danced to salsa and merengue music from enormous loudspeakers on an oceanside road that serves as the main entrance to the Old San Juan tourist district.

"The time has come to raise the voice of alarm," New Progressive Party president and gubernatorial candidate Carlos Pesquera told the crowd. "Here is the silent majority of Puerto Rico."

Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barcelo, Puerto Rico's nonvoting member of Congress, criticized islanders who "wear their citizenship like a piece of clothing which they put on and take off when it is convenient," and said that U.S. citizenship carries with it responsibilities as well as opportunities.

"All of us who are celebrating at this festival are proud to be Puerto Ricans and proud to be Americans too. We feel proud to fly both flags," Romero Barcelo said.

Puerto Rico Police Assistant Superintendent Jesus Garcia estimated attendance at 90,000.

The rally, celebrating the March 2 anniversary of the Jones Act of 1917, which made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens, was designed to counteract what organizers say is an "anti-American message" that protests over the Navy's use of Vieques for bombing practice has projected in the mainland media.

It follows a "Peace for Vieques" march last month, in which religious leaders and throngs of Puerto Ricans called for no more U.S. military training on Vieques. Commonwealth police estimated that 85,000 people participated in that march, while San Juan police put the number as high as 150,000.

"Ultimately, the Vieques issue gives the impression that the people of Puerto Rico are anti-American, and the majority of the people are pro-American," said William Santos, 42, a resident of Vega Baja, a north coast town west of San Juan, who attended today's rally.

Although the religious leaders who organized last month's demonstration made a call to participants to leave home flags and other partisan symbols, New Progressive Party leaders attacked the event as "separatist."

Puerto Rico 's political leadership has been pushing for the Navy to quit its Vieques training ground, where it has trained the Atlantic fleet for more than five decades, since the April 19 death of a civilian security guard during a bombing exercise gone awry.

On Jan. 31, a deal was announced between Gov. Pedro Rossello, Clinton and the Navy that calls for a referendum for Vieques voters to decide if they want the Navy to leave by May 1, 2003, or stay indefinitely and give the commonwealth an additional $50 million.

But during the three-year interim, Clinton called for the target range to be reopened and protesters cleared from it so that the Navy can practice 90 days a year using dummy ordnance.

Critics of the deal say there are not sufficient guarantees that the directives will be followed through to completion. They object that the Navy gets to choose the date of the referendum, either nine months before or after May 1, 2001, and say the vote is being postponed too long.

But most of the participants in the "My Citizenship Festival" today said they thought it was a good deal.

"The people of Vieques have been used by pro-independence leaders," said Fernando Luis Cruz, a 63-year-old resident of San German, on the southwest coast.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) attended today's rally to show support for Puerto Ricans' choosing a future political status with the United States.

"If and when I become speaker of the House, we will pass legislation in the Congress which will call for self-determination for Puerto Rico," Gephardt pledged. "That legislation will say that what Puerto Rico wants, America wants. It will say what Puerto Rico decides, America decides."

Kennedy said that "Puerto Rican culture is now American culture" and told the crowd in Spanish that "for a 51st state, I am with you."

[Republican presidential candidate, George W. Bush, in a message read to the crowd, said the commemoration was an "example of patriotism."

Bush underscored the bond between the United States and Puerto Rico since 1917, noting that Puerto Rican soldiers have served in all U.S. wars since then.

"As citizens residing in a commonwealth of the United States, the Puerto Rican people have the right to vote for their island's political status. I have advocated statehood for the island, if that's what the Puerto Rican people choose," Bush said.]

Although San Juan Mayor Sila Calderon, the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party's candidate for governor in November's elections, attended the official ceremony last Thursday declaring U.S. Citizenship Day, she stayed away today, saying the rally was a political activity for her opponent Pesquera.

"We have to rescue Puerto Rico from the negative forces of fear that the NPP leadership is directing," Calderon said in a statement released after the march.

The third candidate for governor, Puerto Rican Independence Party president Ruben Berrios Martinez, remains illegally camped out on restricted Navy land in Vieques, where he has vowed to remain until he is arrested or the Navy pledges not to resume bombing practice.