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Puerto Rico Can Strengthen Its Voice

May 9, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE ATLANTA CONSTITUTION. All Rights Reserved.


Vieques And Sovereignty

May 5, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE. All Rights Reserved.

Thankfully, the removal of protesters last week from U.S. Navy property on Vieques Island, off the coast of Puerto Rico , produced no news photos that could be interpreted as "jackbooted federal thugs" accosting American citizens, nor was there any reason for any rough stuff.

The demonstrators accepted arrest peaceably because they had made their point. They had gained mainlandwide attention for their cause - -- to get the Navy to cease combat training on this inhabited island (population 9,300). Besides, by forcing the feds to roust them, they had confirmed Washington as the heavy, at least in fellow Puerto Ricans' eyes.

This is not to say the occupation of Navy property was justifiable; it was a grandstand play by advocates of Puerto Rican independence. The issue of Vieques' status was worked out fairly last January by President Clinton and Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello. Under their deal, the Navy can continue to practice aerial, nonexplosive bombardment on its Vieques firing range, for which the island government will be paid a $40 million fee. In fact, the Navy started bombing training Monday. In a year or so, Vieques residents will vote whether to halt Navy exercises or let them continue, in which case the island would get $50 million more.

A phaseout would be reasonable, giving the Navy time to find a suitable and vacant option in the Caribbean. One possibility is Dog Island, which it could lease from the British government, but there are others.

No doubt Vieques would have been rid of its bombing headache long ago if it had two senators and a representative or two in Congress arguing its case, but that would have required Puerto Ricans voting for statehood , which they have declined to do several times over the last half-century. The lesson here is that if they want to be treated like a full partner, they need to commit to our indivisible union.

In the end, it appeared the arrests came almost as a relief. There was no resistance and there was no violence by the roughly 300 FBI agents and deputy U.S. marshals who descended on the tiny Puerto Rican island of Vieques to clear the Navy bombing range there of protesters.

On the contrary, the arrests were almost ceremonial in character, with the likes of U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and several of his congressional colleagues being taken into custody to symbolically express opposition to the Navy's use of Vieques for bombing practice.

There was a subtext as well: that Puerto Rico is a put-upon land, not properly respected by the nation of which it is ambiguously a part. Why else would that nation allow an inhabited island to be used for target practice with high-powered munitions?

Well, if you listen to the Navy, it's because Vieques is the best place in the hemisphere for the kind of training its people need. And if you listen to the people of Puerto Rico as they have expressed themselves in elections, their ambiguous "commonwealth" status suits the majority just fine.

So if Puerto Rico is put upon, it is by the democratic choice of its people. It is they who must be persuaded to change their minds-- and their votes.

Thursday's operation brought to an end a yearlong occupation by protesters who invaded the bombing range last spring after a wayward bomb killed a security guard there. It was the first fatality in the range's six-decade history--hardly indicative of a major danger--but it became the rallying point for protest.

Even after President Bill Clinton and Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello negotiated an agreement in January calling for Vieques residents to vote on the Navy presence next year, the occupation continued.

The reason, of course, was that the issue for the protesters was only incidental the bombing range and its alleged environmental and other negative effects. The real issue was--and is--sovereignty.

Vieques is, in their minds, symbolic of Puerto Rico 's "colonial" status in the United States. Were it a state, or an independent nation, it would not have to endure such an indignity.

Maybe not. But Puerto Rico 's status within the U.S. is the result of the popular choice of its people, expressed several times over the last half century, most recently in December 1998. All those who feel different need to do is persuade a majority of their fellow citizens to vote for a change. The majority of mainlanders, we daresay, would not stand in their way.

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