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Clinton's Puerto Rico Policy Bombs in More Ways Than One

by Jose Fuentes

October 5, 1999
Copyright © 1999 DOW JONES & COMPANY, INC. All Rights Reserved.

Many commentators have observed that in deciding to offer clemency to 16 convicted Puerto Rican terrorists, President Clinton did not adequately consider the perspectives of any of the victims of their organization, the FALN (a Spanish acronym for Armed Forces of National Liberation). But that's not all the president seems to have overlooked. He also failed to consider how his actions might harm relations between the people of Puerto Rico and their fellow American citizens in the 50 states.

The people of Puerto Rico have not been immune from the FALN's campaign of terror. In 1975 a bomb detonated in a restaurant in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, killing a six-year-old child and wounding several other diners. And a senior FBI official believes that the FALN may be responsible for more recent bombings in Puerto Rico as well as in Chicago.

Even more surprising to me was that the FALN terrorists received clemency as a group. A full exoneration of a criminal group -- rather than just individuals -- is, to my knowledge, unprecedented in modern American history. I fear that this may set a troubling new standard. Other terrorist organizations may view this clemency offer as a weakening of American resolve. What appeared to some as an act of mercy might have the unintended effect of actually increasing the danger to U.S. citizens.

Much of the recent discussion surrounding the clemency decision has focused on the suspicious timing in light of Hillary Clinton's political aspirations, on Vice President Gore's conspicuous silence on the issue and on the unanimous counsel of senior law-enforcement officials against the release of the terrorists. Largely absent has been the voice of the Puerto Rican community.

I fear President Clinton may only have succeeded in igniting resentment and suspicion against the Puerto Rican people -- by fueling the assumption that we all supported the clemency decision. Most of us did not. And we do not want to give our fellow Americans the mistaken impression that our sympathies lie with terrorism. Mr. Clinton needs to know that Puerto Rico stands with the U.S. against terrorism -- and we emphatically reject any insinuation to the contrary.

Generations of goodwill between Puerto Ricans and Americans on the mainland may be seriously harmed unless there is a change of direction from the White House. While the decades since World War II have witnessed countless nations seeking self-determination, Puerto Rico stands as a notable exception. In repeated referendums over the years, Puerto Ricans have consistently rejected independence (an option favored by less than 3% of Puerto Ricans in the most recent vote, last year) and strongly favored maintaining our strong ties with the U.S. Although Puerto Ricans are divided almost equally between proponents of full statehood and advocates of maintaining our current status as a commonwealth, an overwhelming majority agrees in shunning independence.

And we do not take our relationship with the U.S. for granted. Thousands of Puerto Ricans have served in the U.S. military this century, and many of them paid the ultimate price in defense of freedom. These solemn sacrifices have been described as the "blood tax" proudly incurred by Puerto Rico to protect and promote American ideals. Furthermore, in the century since the U.S. took control of Puerto Rico, we have grown from abject poverty to robust prosperity and now have one of the very highest levels of per capita income in Latin America. In short, we consider the U.S. as a benevolent administrator rather than an overbearing parent.

Now Mr. Clinton is on the verge of unraveling these strong bonds on two fronts. Besides his untimely clemency decision, he continues to avoid taking action on another matter of deep concern to Puerto Ricans.

Puerto Rico 's goodwill towards the U.S. received a jolt when a Navy jet's practice bomb inadvertently killed a civilian on our island of Vieques in April. This was a tragedy waiting to happen. Our vibrant relationship with the U.S. has been strained in recent years by the Navy's continued insistence on practicing bombing missions in close proximity to American citizens living and working on this island -- a practice that has no clear military rationale.

This recent accidental death gave Mr. Clinton an opportunity to reverse course and end these unnecessary bombing practices. Instead, he formed a commission to study a situation that has already been studied enough and now demands action.

Months after the fact, and weeks after its due date, the commission has yet to even issue its report. Now Mr. Clinton is in a difficult position. After the public relations pummeling he took on the clemency case, the last thing he wants to do is make any high-profile decision regarding Puerto Rico. It seems unlikely that the commission will take the right and proper step of recommending that the Navy cease its harmful training practices on Vieques. Many observers fear that Mr. Clinton will merely rubber-stamp the commission's report, and the Navy practice bombings will probably continue. If the Navy persists in using Vieques for target practice, an unprecedented outburst of civil disobedience could erupt from frustrated Puerto Ricans.

Many Puerto Ricans find themselves questioning their faith in President Clinton's political judgment following the unfortunate focus on the FALN and the concurrent inaction toward Vieques. We wish to reassure Americans on the mainland of our consistent affection for -- and loyalty to -- the U.S. I only hope that the clemency of FALN terrorists does not cause the American people to lose faith in their fellow citizens on Puerto Rico.

Mr. Fuentes is attorney general of Puerto Rico.

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