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The Resurrection Of Rubén Berríos

by Lance Oliver

September 22, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

This weekend, pro-independence advocates from around Puerto Rico will gather in the small town of Lares in the foothills of the Cordillera Central to mark the anniversary of the Grito de Lares, the unsuccessful 1868 uprising against Spanish colonial rule.

In many ways, the gathering will be like any other year. There will be a mass, a march to the town’s old plaza. Flowers will be laid at the memorial for those who are called "Heroes and Martyrs" to the cause of independence. There will be speeches, some sounding like outtakes from a Fidel Castro address and others more moderate.

All of that will be the same as any other recent year.

But there will be a difference, too. This year, the Grito de Lares will be an act of solidarity among pro-independence ranks. Not that the numerous pro-independence splinter groups have suddenly resolved their ideological differences and personal grudges, but rather they have found a point of agreement strong enough to convince them to try, at least, to join forces and coexist peacefully.

The point of agreement is a man who, a few of years ago, was a major obstacle to such consensus and who was seen by many as a washed-up politician out of step with the times. The man, of course, is Rubén Berríos, and he has completely altered his image among significant portions of the public, including those who do not support him politically, by camping on a beach for a year.

Before Berríos joined the protest invasion of the Navy land on Vieques in May, 1999, he was the exact opposite of a unifying figure among pro-independence ranks. While he was still respected and loved by many in the Puerto Rican Independence Party, independentistas outside the party often held negative opinions of him.

He has led the PIP for more than a quarter of a century and many felt his presence had stifled the development of new talent and younger leaders. Some blamed him for a perceived unwillingness by the party to accept women in leadership positions.

And of course other pro-independence groups saw him as the lightning rod for all their ideological complaints about the party.

All that changed when Berríos gave up his comfortable life and his Senate seat to live in a hut on the beaches of Vieques, something other elected politicians were unwilling or unable to do.

When he was finally removed and arrested more than a year later, he walked out of court after being sentenced to a few hours of detention and announced that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

All of this, from his willingness to sacrifice for the Vieques protest just as he had done years earlier in Culebra, to his persistence in remaining on the island for more than a year, to his own health battles, all added up to ever-growing admiration, especially as the other two candidates for governor took positions that disappointed those voters for whom the Vieques issue outweighs all others.

The PIP, which needs to reverse its steady decline in support at the polls to avoid losing its electoral franchise, has wisely and cleverly capitalized on this new-found popularity. Billboards and newspaper and television ads show a close-up of Berríos, his pure-white beard showing off the near-sunburn he always wore during his days on Vieques, with the slogan, "Todos con Rubén," or "Everyone’s for Rubén."

Beneath the slogan in the ads is a rainbow-colored "x" like a mark on a ballot. By including every color, not just PIP green, the ads take a swipe at the red of the Popular Democratic Party and the blue of the New Progressive Party.

The image is that everyone is welcome, that all those motivated by the Vieques issue to look at politics anew have a home in the campaign. The man is emphasized, the party goes unmentioned.

It’s a good ad, but will it work?

At the Grito de Lares celebration, probably everyone will be for Rubén. But what happens in the voting booth is a different thing. The Grito de Lares failed for lack of support, and the PIP’s biggest problem is the prevalence of "watermelons," voters who are PIP green on the outside but truly PDP red on the inside.

Those people lose their convictions in the voting booth and cast a "safer" vote for the PDP candidate, sometimes just to avoid making it easier for a statehooder to win.

Will that happen this year? Berríos, naturally, predicts that Vieques has created a crossroads and public sentiment will change in his favor.

A week deep into November, we’ll know whether the resurrection of Rubén Berríos was a passing fancy or the first steps down a new political road.

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

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