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THE WASHINGTON POST
Standing Watch On The Imperium
In Puerto Rico, the Legacy of the Spanish-American
War Remains Unresolved
by Stephen S. Rosenfeld
July 16, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE WASHINGTON POST. All Rights Reserved.
Americans do not normally think of themselves as an imperial power,
but that is how I came to be peering through a glass at a remnant
of empire that is with us still. The glass was a radar scope,
crawling with lights and lines marking the features of a little
sister island of Puerto Rico called Vieques. I was there calling
in a Marine aviator on a target on the Vieques training range.
The time was 1954, some 45 years before the tragic bombing error
of last April that killed a local civilian employee and prompted
the major Pentagon review of Vieques going on now.
It was the Spanish American War at the turn of the last century
in which the United States acquired Puerto Rico (and some other
Spanish outposts) as war booty. It was after World War I that
Washington, in a gesture both generous and self-serving, settled
American citizenship upon the Puerto Ricans. Citizenship with
an asterisk: no voting rights in Congress, no presidential vote.
We insisted on control precisely to keep available for our strategy
the conveniences of empire.
The Vieques guard who died last April was preventing islanders
from straying past a chain-link fence into the land and sea areas
where American fleets conduct live-fire exercises. But training
on Vieques in the mid-'50s was distinctly lower key. Our pilots
were supposed to suspend operations whenever they saw a farmer
and his cows ambling or a fishing boat drifting toward the target
On this particular exercise in 1954, my unit had actually been
poised for an authentic imperial mission, although I did not know
it. En route from Morehead City, N.C., our troop ship had interrupted
its course to circle, seemingly aimlessly, for 10 days while we
climbed nets. Only decades later did I learn from newly opened
papers that during the American-supported coup in Guatemala in
1954 a Marine battalion had circled for 10 days just over the
horizon -- just in case. "That's me!" I exclaimed.
Snoozing in my bunk in the languid early afternoon, paying 12
cents a bottle for a Heineken's at the cabana used as the officers'
club, tucking into a sweet langosta in "Izzy Segoo"
(Isabella Segunda), I didn't feel myself to be a soldier of imperialism.
But I suppose I was acting the part.
Which is how I came to be hunched over a buzzing blinking green
screen in the back of a van parked on the high ground of Vieques,
getting ready for the next war.
The guard's death last April was the first fatality in 50 years
of American military deployment. In its wake a passion seems to
have seized many Puerto Ricans to be done with the American military
presence. The training range appears to represent for them not
Puerto Rico 's contribution to the common defense but their frustration
at not achieving, after a century, a mature and settled political
relationship with the United States.
President Clinton has ordered Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen
to promptly "review the need for operations at Vieques and
to explore alternative sites or methods. . . . " He wants
a resolution that "ensures our country's military readiness
as well as the safety and welfare of the people of Vieques."
As you might expect, the Pentagon enters the review arguing vigorously,
and with much merit, for keeping things essentially as they are.
But the main problem here does not lie in the way the Pentagon
runs the Vieques range. No doubt some marginal improvements could
be made. But the Pentagon has learned much about relating to the
local community since I, as the designated community relations
officer, was dispatched to sprinkle a little largess on the occasional
Vieques resident whose chicken was picked off by one of our jeeps.
The problem is not military but political: It goes to the nagging
question of whether the current commonwealth arrangement should
be continued or replaced by statehood or independence. Vieques
is no more than a stage -- an issue of the day -- on which Puerto
Ricans are acting out their quest for political dignity a hundred
years after the United States casually took over their home.
For the failure to resolve the island's political status , the
U.S. Navy, of course, is not to blame. The responsibility lies
with the elected American officials in the 50 states and in Puerto
They must figure out how best to balance the benefits and burdens
of a particular Puerto Rican connection with the United States.
Until this large task is done, the connection will be vulnerable
to chance tremors and a whole range of corrosive political slights.
There lies the imperial legacy.