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PUERTO RICO REPORT
Numbers Racket: The Meaningless Debate Over Whose
Demonstration is Bigger
by Lance Oliver
March 10, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
A certain quantity of persons numbering somewhere in the thousands
marched down the highway for the stated purpose of opposing the
Navy's use of Vieques for target practice and another quantity
of persons numbering somewhere else in the thousands assembled
in front of the capital for the stated purpose of celebrating
their U.S. citizenship.
That's what we can say for sure. We could have also predicted,
beforehand, that after the two marches ended we would have a petty
and useless debate over which was bigger.
In the aftermath of the citizenship rally, it began, with each
side offering widely varying estimates and verdicts of "great
success" or "total failure," depending upon the
tint of the glasses through which they viewed the events. Before
long, it degenerated into sniping over whether a packed, standing
crowd takes up two square feet per person or three, or some other
amount of space.
It's an argument that ultimately leads nowhere.
Marches and public protests are popular tactics in Puerto Rico
despite little evidence that they have any effect. From the labor
unions and other groups that opposed the privatization of the
Puerto Rico Telephone Company to every little neighborhood that
has given up on pounding against the lethargic, bureaucratic walls
of the water authority in hopes of getting simple water service,
people with a complaint parade in the streets brandishing signs.
Does it ever work? The evidence is not encouraging.
The 1997 march against the PRTC sale was in the same ballpark
as the recent Vieques march in terms of size, but it didn't stop
the sale. It's hard to imagine that any number of people shutting
down the expressway in Hato Rey is going to get Puerto Rico a
better deal than the one President Clinton has already offered
on Vieques. As I've stated in previous columns, Clinton has no
more room for compromise.
The "success" of the citizenship rally will be almost
impossible to determine because its true purposes were never that
clear. By celebrating U.S. citizenship, it had the purpose of
counteracting the image received by many in the United States,
due to the Vieques dispute, that Puerto Ricans show less allegiance
than the people in the 50 states.
(One can also presume another goal was to raise election-year
spirits and generate some mass enthusiasm about the candidacy
of Carlos Pesquera, a task that has proven beyond the New Progressive
Party's abilities to date.)
But if the demonstrations themselves are of questionable value
these days, then arguing over whose is bigger is an even more
dubious use of time.
Look at it this way. On the day thousands marched against
the Navy's presence in Vieques you could have chartered a small
plane, circled the coast and counted as many people on the beaches
as at the rally. Would you therefore say that Puerto Ricans think
going to the beach is as important as the Vieques issue? Of course
Assume the official estimate is correct and 90,000 people attended
the citizenship rally. That represents 2.3% of the population.
Ten times that percentage visits a shopping mall every week.
Would you therefore say that 97.7% of Puerto Ricans don't care
about their citizenship or that they are 10 times more interested
in shopping? Of course not.
One side would have us believe 90,000 attended the citizenship
rally and 85,000 marched for Vieques. Others say it was more
like 60,000 at the citizenship rally and 150,000 for Vieques.
Either way, we are quibbling over a small sliver of a society.
With 3.9 million people on the island, does one march having
5,000 people more than another make it more meaningful?
No, but some people will still pursue such debates, if only
because they think they must.
One person with a moral stance and a great idea can do more
than thousands of lemmings following a leader. Great masses have
gathered for misguided and even evil causes. Large demonstrations
have also changed the course of history for the better.
It's not the number that matters, it's the meaning.
We didn't really learn much new from these demonstrations.
We already know how must Puerto Ricans feel about the Navy in
Vieques. We already know most want their U.S. citizenship although
they consider themselves Puerto Ricans, not "Americans."
A few thousand people more or less will not change those essential
truths and these demonstrations, especially now that they have
degenerated into virtual dueling political rallies, are unlikely
to change anything else, either.
Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly
for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email