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Berríos’ Cancer Changes The Vieques Equation

by Lance Oliver

June 16, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

How times have changed. Nearly 30 years ago, Rubén Berríos was sentenced to three months in prison for his protests of the Navy’s presence in Culebra. This week, he spent six hours in a holding cell for his protest of the Navy’s presence in Vieques.

On Tuesday, everyone thought that sentence was the news of the week. But on Wednesday, Berríos announced he has prostate cancer and the issues of the day before suddenly seemed much smaller.

For Berríos, the prognosis is good. Doctors believe the cancer has not spread and he will have an operation soon to remove the organ. The recovery rate is good.

The prognosis for the Navy’s efforts to win any significant support at all among the Vieques public, however, has taken a turn for the worse. If the patient had slim hopes before, now the case is clearly terminal.

If a referendum is held to determine whether the Navy leaves Vieques, the Navy will be lucky to win the approximately 11 percent support it has in most polls.

That’s because the Navy, with no credibility to begin with, thanks to years of ignoring concerns and complaints by Vieques residents and not keeping its promises, will never be able to convince the general public in Puerto Rico that Vieques isn’t a breeding ground for cancer. Even if the Navy could come up with a full array of scientific evidence showing its presence has not caused high cancer rates on Vieques, it would have no more effect than a boatload of DNA evidence showing O.J. Simpson killed his wife.

It doesn’t matter that Berríos’ own doctors say they cannot positively link his cancer to his one-year stay on Vieques at the protest camps. Most people will do what Puerto Rican Independence Party Vice President Fernando Martín did when he referred to Berríos’ year in Vieques and his subsequent cancer and said, "It speaks for itself."
Let’s face it, elevated cancer rates in Vieques caused by the Navy’s presence is far more believable than the "chupacabras," and look at how many people believe in that.

At the polls, public perception is measured, not the dry and careful procedures of scientific studies, and public perception will generally be that Berríos got cancer because he went to Vieques.

Even more than before, the Navy’s only hope of staying in Vieques lies not with a referendum, but with a rescue from Washington. Its potential salvation could come from a new commander-in-chief with little regard for the Clinton deal and a Congress that seems intent on chipping away at the lame-duck president’s directives on Vieques.

Meanwhile, Berríos’ health problems raise other questions.

Unlike Rudy Giuliani in New York, he is not dropping out of the race for governor. But Berríos also knows he isn’t going to win his race anyway, and his popularity is now higher than it has been in years, meaning he can potentially give his party a real boost at the polls this year to ensure it keeps its electoral franchise.

Another question is the future of continuing protests against the Navy presence. Obviously, Berríos himself is not going to be up for more trespassing excursions.

Protests were dwindling rapidly anyway. Following the eviction of the protesters camped on Navy land, many of them predicted a steady stream of acts of civil disobedience, but in fact there have been relatively few.

Before Berríos made his startling announcement on Wednesday, speculation had centered on how the protests might be affected by the light sentence handed down by federal judge Juan Pérez Giménez.

Considering that the jail time imposed was shorter than the trial, the sentence was surprising. I happened to be in a public spot near a television set when the news of the six-hour sentence was reported and everyone in the room spontaneously laughed.

Will a sentence that inspired a laugh bring about a different reaction than a harsh one that would have inspired gasps?

It may not matter any more. Despite the efforts of clergy to put a non-political stamp on the Vieques protest, Berríos has been the closest thing to a point man for the cause. With him out of action and the will to protest dwindling on its own, the days of protest over Vieques may be done.

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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