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Reality Strikes Early

by Lance Oliver

November 17, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

It was almost precisely a week from the time the polls closed in Puerto Rico and Sila María Calderón was chosen the next governor until she got her first lesson of just how much more difficult it is to fulfill campaign promises than make them.

It was Nov. 14, a week after the election, when the governor-elect received a "Dear Sila" letter from President Bill Clinton. The president responded to a joint letter sent to the White House by Calderón and her two opponents in the election, Carlos Pesquera, president of the New Progressive Party, and Rubén Berríos, president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party.

The three came together after the election to sign the letter asking Clinton to stop U.S. Navy training activities on the island of Vieques before he leaves office. Their hopes raised by published comments Clinton made in an interview, the three decided it was worth a try. They hoped the changes made to Clinton’s directives on Vieques, accepted by Pesquera’s party but rejected by the other two, had convinced Clinton that the federal government was not meeting its end of the bargain and so the accord should be scrapped.

If they believed Clinton would actually act on their request, they were overly optimistic, as the "Dear Sila" letter demonstrated.

After congratulating her on her election victory, Clinton wrote:

"Regarding Vieques, I want to make clear that I still believe the Directives I issued January 31, 2000, remain the fairest solution possible, letting the residents determine the ultimate fate of their island. The Directives also meet local concerns as expeditiously as possible. As I indicated in the interview you referenced, I will continue to work to ensure the Federal Government fulfills the agreement the Directives represent. Based on the progress we have made in implementing the agreement so far, and the support it has received from both presidential candidates, I think the Federal Government will fulfill the important provisions of the agreement."

The sending of the letter to Clinton was announced by the three party presidents with a backdrop of religious and civic leaders, all of them trumpeting the inter-party harmony. As is increasingly the case these days, the only one out in the cold was Gov. Pedro Rosselló, who downplayed the importance of the gesture and stuck to his unpopular position of supporting the presidential directives.

But to return to the original point, this may be just the first of several frustrating episodes for the next governor. By winning the election, what Calderón may have won, in the case of Vieques, is the chance to prove that she is utterly incapable of fulfilling her campaign promises and ending Navy activities on the island sooner than the three-year process called for under Clinton’s plans.

During the campaign, Calderón successfully walked a tightrope on the Vieques issue. Berríos, knowing that voters most concerned about Vieques were the same voters he most needed, attacked her for claiming to be so firm on the issue but not coming through with actions, rather than words, while he was camped on the island awaiting the FBI teams that would come and arrest the protesters.

Yet in the end, Calderón succeeded in keeping the Vieques issue from siphoning off a critical mass of votes from her Popular Democratic Party to the pro-independence party. It’s interesting to note that although Berríos got more than twice as many votes on Vieques as his party’s candidate did in 1996, he still did worse percentage-wise on Vieques than he did overall in Puerto Rico.

Calderón cleaned up on Vieques, however, winning 64.7 percent of the small island’s vote. That represented a 30.2 percent increase for the PDP over 1996 while the NPP, saddled with the unpopular stance of supporting the president’s directives, saw its support drop by 37.3 percent compared to the last election.

With the letter signed by the three party leaders, Calderón has returned to her mantra of "consensus." But no matter how united a front Puerto Rico may portray on the Vieques issue, there is no leverage it can use to move Washington. Clinton went as far as he could go, politically, and we have already seen that Congress is tinkering with the agreement he created.

The next president will have no incentive to go further. Neither will the Congress. So although one of Calderón’s election promises was to nurture and restore the consensus among Puerto Ricans on Vieques, and turn that into a lever for stopping the bombing and training there, the president’s "Dear Sila" letter is likely to be just the first of many signs that the former of those campaign promises will be difficult to keep, and the latter may be impossible.

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

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