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Puerto Ricans Divided Over Vieques

Though some want Navy out, a large constituency disagrees

by Don Bohning

May 7, 2000
Copyright © 2000 MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

 SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Although the controversy over the U.S. Navy's practice bombing of the tiny island of Vieques, seven miles off the eastern tip of the main island, has stirred Puerto Rican passions more than any local issue in recent years, Puerto Ricans are divided over what happens next.

``Two weeks ago, the big discussion [in the media] was Elian,'' said Puerto Rican journalist and author Alex Maldonado. ``Things come and go. It will continue, but, come November, Vieques will be pretty much history. It will be an emotional blip. People will decide on the basis of who will be the most effective in dealing with economic and social problems.''

Others, such as Juan Manuel Garcia Passalaqua, another prominent and longtime Puerto Rican commentator and analyst, see events in Vieques as ``ushering in a new era in Puerto Rico-U.S. relations in which civil disobedience will take center stage in a lot more instances.''

As a direct result of the Vieques standoff, Garcia Passalaqua said, ``elections, plebiscites and nationalist violence are out in the relationship. Civil disobedience is definitely in, led by the churches, not by the political parties.''

He added, ``It's absolutely a watershed . . . not the fizzling out, but the beginning, of a completely new phase in the relationship [with the United States]. People have discovered the Gandhian way.''

The news media's incessant focus on passions stirred by the protest evictions from Vieques and the subsequent peaceful demonstrations against the U.S. Navy creates an impression of widespread support for ridding Vieques of an unpopular military presence.


But there also appears to be a large but silent constituency that feels the other way -- if Carmen LaTorre and Maribel Romero, two Puerto Rican women who work at a San Juan Hotel, are any indication.

``It's all about politics. They [the protesters] don't think about the people in Vieques,'' Romero complained. ``Most of the people in Vieques are from outside and don't even live there.''

LaTorre echoed those sentiments, adding that she is also bothered by the mixing of religion and politics in the controversy.

Both the Roman Catholic and Protestant leadership have taken a major role in the protests in the effort to rid Vieques of the U.S. Navy, contending it is a moral issue. If the protests continue, churches are expected to be at the forefront.

About 40 representatives from several religious denominations were among the 215 protesters detained Thursday when federal agents evicted protesters from Vieques.

``Today is a day of profound sorrow for our people,'' San Juan's Roman Catholic Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez, said after the evictions. ``We have turned a new leaf for the noble cause to seek peace in Vieques.''

The protesters and their supporters, including Garcia Passalaqua, view the demonstrations in Vieques as a success for their side and have made it clear the battle will continue.

``Absolutely it was successful,'' Garcia Passalaqua said. ``They [the protesters] stopped the Navy bombing for 381 days and forced the U.S. to face the issue militarily.''

Most observers here anticipate a period of relative calm in the controversy until the Navy resumes its use of the practice bombing range with dummy bombs within the next few weeks.

``If they decide to renew bombing before the Puerto Rican national parade in New York [on June 11], it will be a mess,'' Garcia Passalaqua said.

Garcia Passalaqua sees three other flash points in U.S.-Puerto Rican relations in addition to Vieques. They are the death penalty, wiretapping and making Spanish the official language of Puerto Rico's four million people.

Maldonado, who worked with Puerto Rico's late, revered Gov. Luis Muñoz Marin, one of the architects of the island's unique commonwealth status with the mainland -- as did Garcia Passalaqua -- has a different take.

He blames current Gov. Pedro Rossello for the controversy over Vieques, contending that he mobilized anti-U.S. support to force the Clinton administration into a negotiated settlement that, in addition to economic incentives, calls for a referendum by Vieques' 9,300 residents. If they vote no, the Navy would be out of Vieques by 2003.

But the ultimate political result, Maldonado said, is that Rossello set in motion a movement that has taken on a momentum of its own.

Economically, he noted, Puerto Rico's economy is 42 percent dependent on manufacturing which, in turn, is based on U.S. tax exemptions.

"Culturally,'' Maldonado said, ``Puerto Ricans don't consider themselves Americans. This is the emotional basis of Vieques. Vieques is Navy property. The Navy bought it but the Puerto Rican mentality is that Vieques belongs to Puerto Rico.

"What Elian is to the Cuban community, Vieques is to Puerto Rico,'' he said. ``It belongs to us; the emotional symbol. We want the Navy to leave.''

But politically, Maldonado said, if there is one thing Puerto Ricans treasure, it is the benefits of U.S. citizenship, and ``they are not going to commit hara-kiri by giving up U.S. citizenship for Vieques.''

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