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The News in Puerto Rico Maybe Isn’t What You Think

by Lance Oliver

July 7, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

It’s the oldest and most predictable trick in a writer’s book and I usually dislike it, but I’ll admit, I did it anyway. Arriving back in Puerto Rico after a two-week absence, I stumbled off my late flight and into the back seat of a taxi and asked the cab driver, "So, what’s been going on here?"

He proceeded to tell me about a man who killed his wife and children in the mountain town of Utuado and was now the object of a manhunt. "Other than that," he said, "nothing."

That’s right, "nothing." He said nothing about the dozens of people arrested in Vieques, not a word about the so-called "historic" White House summit on Puerto Rico’s political status.

The elites and the newsmakers in Puerto Rico might say, at least privately, that his response was just an example of the lack of awareness among the average population. You could construct an argument to support that view. But I think that’s a simplistic view.

Even after reading through all the back newspapers, including the editorials in stateside newspapers about the White House meeting, I came to the conclusion that the cabbie was essentially right. I hadn’t missed all that much.

That’s not to say that the status issue or the fate of Vieques are unimportant. I believe they are historically important. But the lasting importance of individual recent events is very likely to amount to, as the driver said, "nothing."

To think that a 90-minute meeting at the White House is going to change the course of the status debate is to embrace optimism that has crossed the line into full-fledged disassociation from reality.

What could possibly happen? That lifelong statehooders, suddenly overcome by the aura of Abe Lincoln’s ghost, would profess to have seen the light and embrace commonwealth after all? That people who have dedicated their lives to supporting commonwealth would instantly find that the scales had fallen from their eyes and they now saw the obvious and indisputable advantages of statehood?

Does anyone think that a panel appointed by a lame-duck president is going to solve an issue that has dragged on a century? How many times has the status issue been studied?

If the White House meeting, dubbed "historic" by the press and fussed over endlessly by the political elite, amounts ultimately to nothing more than hyper-wonkery, then what about the more emotional issue of Vieques?

Those who were arrested in Vieques, especially those who refused to post bail and are spending time in a federal lockup, will certainly remember their experiences. For some, it may be the defining moment of their lives.

It is unlikely to change the course of Vieques, however. President Clinton is not going to change his position no matter how many people protest and his successor, be it Al Gore or George W. Bush, will follow the path Clinton has blazed or choose one of his own based on his own feelings and perceptions, not based on today’s protests.

A referendum on Vieques next year may or may not decide the island’s future. It may be decided in a Bush administration or in the halls of Congress. It won’t be decided in a federal courtroom, the Federal Detention Center at Guaynabo or the beaches of Vieques.

So if these daily events, which dominate the conversations of the leadership classes, are not going to have lasting consequences, then is it really wrong to disdain ordinary folk who just plain don’t pay attention to such goings-on? Are they uninformed for dismissing such events or simply shrewd? Or neither?

Of course you can say that the slaying of a woman and her children in Utuado is not an event that lastingly reverberates beyond those immediately involved, either. That’s true.

But decades from now people will remember, among other things, that this era was a time when domestic violence was a societal problem that had lingered long beyond an age when it should have been relegated to history. Just as people today (at least the elderly and the younger ones who are aware) remember when most people went shoeless and a day’s wages barely bought a subsistence ration of rice and beans, today’s problems of crime and conflict will be remembered because they are emblematic of the shifts in Puerto Rican society that cause strife and sometimes violence.

So don’t blame the cabbie for his summary of the news. He may be on to something after all.

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

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