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Bombs Debate In Puerto Rico A Symbol Of Dual Identity

by Juan Tamayo

March 20, 2000
Copyright © 2000 MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Lawyer Oscar Moscoso says that when he joined 80,000 other Puerto Ricans in a march last month demanding that the U.S. Navy surrender its bombing range in Vieques, he proved just how American he is.

Like most of the four million people in this U.S. commonwealth, Moscoso speaks only Spanish and no English, defines his nationality as Puerto Rican and refers to the Caribbean island as his "country".

``But if we had really seen the Navy as a foreign power, blood would have flowed," Moscoso, 34, said last week. ``We marched peacefully because we are responsible U.S. citizens."

Initially portrayed as a sign of rising Puerto Rican nationalism and a body blow to advocates of U.S. statehood, the Vieques march Feb. 21 has instead come to symbolize the dual -- and often dueling -- Puerto Rican and U.S. identities of most people on this island.

"This is a mixture that doesn't make sense to a lot of outsiders, but we are Puerto Ricans who treasure our U.S. citizenship. We are Latin Americans, as well as part of the United States," historian Alex Maldonado said.

Proof of their argument, political leaders and analysts said, is that another 80,000 people waving U.S. flags turned out for a counter-demonstration March 5 sponsored by Puerto Rico's pro-statehood Gov. Pedro Rossello to show their "Americanness".

"This is the story of Puerto Rico -- a ship adrift in a sea of contradictions, newspaper columnist Frank Ramos wrote. "As Alice in Wonderland's Mad Hatter might say, `We seem to be moving in all directions at once, which is to say, we're moving in no direction at all.' ''

If ever an issue could have driven a wedge between the Puerto Ricans' twin identities, it's Vieques, a tiny island east of Puerto Rico that the Navy has used for 50 years for airplane bombing and naval gunnery practice.


Long-simmering accusations that the bombs polluted the air and water, made many of Vieques' 9,300 residents sick and kept them poor by driving away tourism boiled over in April when a stray bomb killed a civilian guard on the range.

Scores of protesters are squatting on the range to block more bombings, and Navy demands for their arrest exacerbated charges that it still behaves like a colonial occupier, 101 years after the Spanish-American War.

Adding to the emotional charge surrounding Vieques, the dispute came as Puerto Ricans basked in nationalist pride over the success of countrymen, with Ricky Martin topping music charts, boxer Felix Trinidad winning the world welterweight crown and Bernie Williams, Ricky Ledee and Jorge Posada helping the New York Yankees to the World Series.

Yet polls show that while the overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans want the Vieques range closed, the dispute has had no visible impact on the decades-old virtual tie between those who favor continued commonwealth status and statehood.


``I am pro-Vieques and maybe anti-Navy. But I am not anti-American," Moscoso said as he lunched at a McDonald's. ``In New York, if you protest against the mayor, are you anti-American? That's the American way, no?"

He added, ``I happen to love both McDonald's and mofongo," referring to the traditional Puerto Rican dish of mashed plantains.

Critics say Rossello's complaints that the Feb. 21 march was ``anti-American'' and his counter-demonstration were in fact designed to pump up his New Progressive Party in advance of November gubernatorial and legislative elections.

The latest poll by the El Nuevo Dia newspaper gave San Juan Mayor Sila Calderon of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party 44 percent of the vote in November gubernatorial elections and Carlos Pesquera of Rossello's New Progressive Party 30 percent.


But political analysts say the gap is largely the result of voter discontent with the high levels of crime and corruption that have marked Rossello's two terms in office. Rossello is not seeking reelection.

Polls give Puerto Rican Independence Party leader Ruben Berrios, who has become almost an icon of the Vieques struggle after squatting on the range since May, the same 5 to 6 percent support that he has enjoyed for the past 10 years.

"Vieques is a very important issue, but I don't think it's one that is affecting either Puerto Rican identity or the November elections," Ramos said in an interview.

Most analysts blame Rossello himself for whipping up the Vieques controversy, taking the lead in demanding that the Navy close the bombing range and even declaring to a U.S. congressional committee hearing in Washington that he would allow "not one more bomb on Vieques.


He created a commission to study the issue and packed it with known supporters of closing the range -- including Lolita Lebron, a pro-independence firebrand who shot up the U.S. Congress in 1954 -- who recommended a total Navy withdrawal from "The Baby Island".

But Rossello broke with the majority of Puerto Ricans in January, negotiating a deal with President Clinton under which the Navy could use inert "dummy bombs for two years and must close the range completely in 2003."

The deal is subject to a referendum of Vieques residents, but the Roman Catholic Church has come out against it, sponsoring the Feb. 21 march, while hard-liners have vowed to continue trespassing on the range.

Ramos said Rossello staged the March 5 counter-march to defend his deal with Washington and perhaps bolster his prospects for a job in Washington if Vice President Al Gore wins the presidential election in November.

"But his declarations that the February march was dangerously anti-American were just plain wrong," Ramos said. "It may have been an expression of nationalism, but it also showed we are proud of our U.S. citizenship."

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