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Vieques Controversy Creates Misperceptions About Puerto Ricans

by Myriam Marquez

April 24, 2000
Copyright © 2000 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rico Sen. Kenneth McClintock, a statehood proponent, wants to dispel a misperception that he believes is growing among Americans:

"Puerto Ricans are not anti-American," he said last week while visiting here.

Why would Americans think that?

Popular support in Puerto Rico to get the U.S. Navy out of the little island of Vieques, where a civilian guard accidentally was killed during a Navy bombing exercise a year ago, stirred things up for months. Passions ran high. Puerto Ricans of different political stripes -- those in favor of keeping the island's current U.S. commonwealth status, statehood supporters and the 3 percent to 5 percent who want independence -- agreed by a resounding majority that the Navy must go.

For good reason. More than a decade ago, the Navy had promised to ease noise pollution, clean up environmental devastation and bring economic development to those living near the base. The Navy never fully delivered, and Puerto Ricans rightly felt used once again.

President Clinton finally offered a deal that will close the Navy's target range in Vieques in three years, cut by half the number of military exercises and do away with "live" ammunition. Most Puerto Ricans, McClintock believes, have moved on.

In February, for instance, El Nuevo Dia, a large daily newspaper in Puerto Rico, released a poll that found that about 60 percent of those who responded could "live with the agreement," he said.

Nevertheless, any protests against the accord continue to make headlines in American newspapers. Just recently, for instance, USA Today focused onVieques protesters in Washington. "There were about 200 at that protest," he said. "We had 80,000 people in front of the Capitol in San Juan in March " at a pro-U.S. rally, McClintock noted, but that didn't get much coverage outside Puerto Rico.

McClintock's concerns go beyond "blame the messenger" gripes. Like many other pro-statehooders, he is concerned that Congress will continue to ignore the issue of self-determination for Puerto Ricans, and that the Vieques issue will become a handy excuse to do so.

Plus, the commonwealth might risk losing its fair share in some federal grants and other public financing if Puerto Rico's congressional critics decide to tinker with financing formulas that already are skewed against the island, partly because Puerto Ricans there pay no federal income taxes.

It is glaringly unfair that, after 100 years of U.S. control over Puerto Rico, the 4 million-plus people who live there and those who were born there still don't have a say in their country's destiny. Commonwealth, statehood or independence cannot be determined solely by Congress. And a "non-binding plebescite" in Puerto Rico satisfies no one.

Puerto Ricans, who as U.S. citizens have fought valiantly in American wars, deserve to vote on the status question first. Congress must respect that vote by following up with hearings and guaranteeing a vote of its own. Otherwise, another 100 years will have passed, and the question still won't have been settled.

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