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Y2K in PR, Part 1

by Lance Oliver

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

The year in Puerto Rico began with battling between Gov. Pedro Rosselló and San Juan Mayor Sila Calderón to see who could mount the better New Years celebration and ended with the same two figures squabbling over the transition of power. But much happened in between.

The leaders of the two major political parties mounted competing celebrations as the clock ticked into 2000 while a 62-year-old woman died and more than half a dozen others were injured due to the senseless habit of marking the new year by firing guns into the air over such a densely populated island.

The Y2K bug proved to be a very mild strain. Prompting little surprise and a few snickers, about the only problem showed up in the Legislature, where the machine that automatically stamps the date on proposed legislation dated the year’s first bill as being introduced on January 34, 1999.

Before January was over, the second trial of defendants in the San Juan AIDS Institute embezzlement case had begun in federal court while the governor was in the hospital for a kidney stone operation.

But the story that would dominate the news, especially during the first half of the year, was Vieques. On the last day of January, President Clinton’s directives were announced, calling for a referendum among Vieques residents on the Navy’s future on the island and the transfer of land to local control.

The next day, Clinton made a rare address specifically to Puerto Ricans. The televised message explained the plan and called it a solution that was fair to both Vieques and the Navy. Rosselló threw his support behind the presidential directives.

Opponents of the Navy’s use of Vieques for training immediately planned a protest march and Calderón said she would participate. The governor, meanwhile, got into an exchange of unpleasantries with the clergy who were playing a key role in the march. The governor suggested they confine their leadership to religious matters and he urged "religious disobedience" among the faithful.

The size of the crowd was debated, as always, but it’s safe to say the march was the largest demonstration ever in Puerto Rico. In Washington, it had the exact effect one might expect for a march of thousands of people with no vote: no effect at all.

The religious leaders tried to leverage the huge turnout into a meeting with Clinton and were consistently rebuffed. Politically, Clinton had gone as far as he could in the direction of the Puerto Rican demands on Vieques and the administration remained rock-firm in resisting further appeasement.

Meanwhile, the race for governor took on a different flavor as New Progressive Party candidate Carlos Pesquera adopted the tactics, strategy and even advisors not of Rosselló, his boss for the past eight years, but of Carlos Romero Barceló. Pesquera took to scare tactics, saying the United States might unilaterally impose independence on Puerto Rico and Romero accused Vieques activists of having a "separatist agenda."

Rosselló spent most of March off the island, undergoing additional surgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, while another political debate arose over the appropriateness of dedicating the annual Puerto Rico Day Parade in New York in part to nationalist Pedro Albizu Campos.

In May, after weeks of breathless newspaper headlines declaring the "imminent" removal of the protesters camped on Vieques, the federal operation finally took place with remarkable restraint showed on both sides. With no violence, the protesters were removed and the Navy began planning to renew training activities more than a year after the firing range had been closed.

After being given a sentence of a few hours of detention for his part in the protest, Puerto Rican Independence Party President Rubén Berríos Martínez stunned everyone by announcing he would soon undergo surgery for prostate cancer. The surgery was declared successful by his doctors.

With Calderón and her party harping on the corruption issue in the campaign, Senate Vice President Aníbal Marrero Pérez of the NPP resigned amid scandal and federal prosecutors issued a 44-count indictment alleging corruption involving the Department of Housing. But a series of mistakes by Calderón allowed Pesquera, doggedly campaigning around the island, to gradually whittle away the lead she had started the year with.

Just days before the celebration of the Puerto Rico Day Parade in New York, mourners in the same city paid their last respects to famous musician Tito Puente, who died at 77. The day of his funeral, Sister Isolina Ferré was hospitalized in Ponce.

Warships gathered off the coast of Vieques as the Navy arrested more trespassers on the firing range. The sun was as bright as ever over Puerto Rico at mid-year, but there were clouds and worries, as well.

Next week: Part 2.

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

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