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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 not.

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 at:

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