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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 areas.

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 Rico itself.

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.

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