Calderón's Shift Right: "More American Than George Bush"

by John Marino

January 24, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOGov. Calderón jumped to the right this week, after being hammered by criticism that her Vieques stance has engendered an appearance of "anti-Americanism" that would cost Puerto Rico dearly in its continued relationship with the United States.

Pouncing on the opportunity to prove otherwise, the governor this week strove to show "she was more American than George Bush" in the words of one critic.

The Puerto Rican Independence Party provided the platform for the governor to do so by initiating a campaign outside island high schools orienting students about their rights regarding the release of their personal information to military recruiters.

The issue stems from a new federal education law that requires schools to provide basic information on students to military recruiters, including students' names, telephone numbers and addresses. The clause is buried within the No Child Left Behind Act of January 2002, which pumps billions of dollars into education and will bring federal education funding to Puerto Rico on par with states over the next several years.

But students, with the consent of their parents, can decline to have their information released if they expressly request their schools to withhold it through an "opt-out" form.

The Education Department also this week released information orienting parents about the issue, but PIP officials, citing a Feb. 7 deadline, said they wanted to bring added publicity to the issue. Calderón blasted the PIP for the campaign, saying the party was "in large measure anti-American" and was bringing politics into island schools.

"This administration is not anti-American. If at some point the United States determines through its president and through its Congress that an act of war is necessary to defend those values that Puerto Ricans treasure, such as liberty and democracy, we will at that moment be backing the United States against terrorism," the governor said.

It's noteworthy that Puerto Rico is perhaps the only place in the United States where the release of basic student information to military recruiters has become an issue. Now that the PIP is undertaking its campaign outside island schools, pro-statehood groups say they will hold similar campaigns to orient students about their ability to release the information to military recruiters and to "unmask the PIP's campaign of lies."

And it's ironic that the center of the controversy is a relatively insignificant clause in a federal bill that finally bestows on Puerto Rico the federal education funding equality that successive statehood and commonwealth administrations had fought for years to attain.

While much of the posturing here may seem aimed at Washington, it is really a local ritual of the trio of political parties flexing their muscle to gain some local political advantage, their eyes permanently fixed on the next local election.

Calderón's maneuvering through the issue is indicative of the peculiar nature of the commonwealth political status -- not quite a state of the union and not quite an independent nation. It is also illustrates the proclivity of pro-commonwealth politicians' to alternately project commonwealth at home as an integral part of the United States or something more akin to an independent country -- depending on what suits their needs.

It's no accident that Calderón came out strong against the PIP's plans – even though the orientation campaign seems par for the course in ultra-political Puerto Rico.

With the possibility that Naval Station Roosevelt Roads would close – or at least suffer a cutback in personnel and activities -- following the Navy pull-out from Vieques, opposition fingers were already pointing towards Calderón’s tough Vieques stance as being responsible for the closure of the base. Many people fear not only the economic fall-out from the closure but what the political implications would be if the largest U.S. military installation left in Puerto Rico would shutter.

The criticism began when the governor lashed out at the Navy late last month for announcing the current round of training taking place at Vieques without first certifying that it had found the alternative sites to end that training by May 1. Didn't the governor know, critics said, that the United States was on the road to war and that training was necessary?

So with the official announcement that the Navy's days in Vieques are numbered, it's to the governor's political advantage to show her pro-American side. Besides lashing out at that PIP, that means lobbying to keep the Navy at its Roosevelt Roads base. But the governor had better come up with a better reason to keep the base open than the local economic benefits she has publicly cited if such lobbying is to be successful.

Calderón's shift right is designed to show commonwealth -- and her administration -- as in tune with U.S. interests. But it's a show completely for local consumption.

Without a proper voice in Congress, the commonwealth government will not keep Roosevelt Roads from closing down if Navy officials decide it is no longer needed. Even the stateside politicians who threw their support behind the drive to end Navy training on Vieques would be hard-pressed to fight to keep a base open that is a natural consequence of that successful campaign.

Calderón might have taken such a leap on the issue in San Juan, but in Washington few politicians would dare do so.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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