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Events in Washington Spur Mood of Nationalism: A View From the Island

by Ivan Roman

October 3, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Welterweight champion Felix "Tito" Trinidad is hardly a political figure here.

But his hero's welcome, with more than 100,000 people draped in Puerto Rican flags and the streets of San Juan paralyzed, might as well have been the next round in a long boxing match between Puerto Rico and Washington.

Thousands in a park waiting for his caravan balked when a floral arrangement of the Puerto Rican and U.S. flags made of carnations appeared on stage. Soon came the screams to remove the U.S. flag because Trinidad's success was Puerto Rico's victory.

"Only one star! Only one star!" the crowd chanted, referring to Puerto Rico's flag.

At some other time, it would have been a trivial, even forgettable, incident, or maybe just a natural show of pride for any Puerto Rican who has reached success, fame or fortune.

But for Puerto Rico, these are not normal times, because events in Washington, D.C., may be bringing to the fore a surge in nationalism here.

Some say this is, in large part, because of resentment toward the United States, which took control of this island 101 years ago as the spoils of the Spanish-American war. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but many identify much more as separate islanders.

That's why tens of thousands of marchers with Puerto Rican flags on July 4 demanded that the U.S. Navy leave the island-municipality of Vieques, used since 1941 as a target range. It occurred as an issue after an errant bomb killed a security guard on April 19. March organizers asked that the U.S. flag not be taken to that event, because it could be a "divisive" symbol.

A few weeks later, a lot more people filled some 20 blocks of an avenue in the island's banking district, demanding the unconditional release of the former Puerto Rican prisoners they call patriots but whom others on the mainland label as terrorists. The ex-prisoners convicted of seditious conspiracy against the United States for their participation in the activities of the FALN, initials in Spanish for the pro-independence Armed Forces for National Liberation. FALN claimed responsibility for about 130 bombings in the U.S. that killed six people and injured dozens of others.

The hero's welcome nine of the freed prisoners received at the airport in San Juan the weekend of their release stoked the flames of controversy already engulfing President Clinton's clemency offer.

Many wonder why a population that has never favored independence in a significant way at the polls in the past 50 years welcomed the prisoners who sought to fight an armed revolution against the United States.

"What's going on here, people?" Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barcelo asked recently at his New Progressive Party's youth convention. "Why do you remain silent when some say that we want to destroy our democratic values?"

There is some dichotomy in that most people in Puerto Rico are not anti-American and they truly value their U.S. citizenship; yet 72 percent, according to a poll by the newspaper El Nuevo Dia, want the Navy out of Vieques.

Even pro-statehood politicians, including Romero Barcelo, himself, are on record pledging to join the pro-independence protesters camped out on the target range in civil disobedience to prevent the Navy from resuming the bombing. Some statehooders are so alarmed at the prospect of appearing anti-American that they're calling in to radio programs to tell their leaders to end their standoff with the Navy. One legislator even proposed holding a pro-America march with the U.S. flag everywhere.

For some longtime believers in independence, the complexity and the seeming contradictions signal nationalism on the rise. Still, for others, it simply reflects the frustration with what they consider a lack of respect from Washington, particularly by Congress, which often has expressed disregard or disdain for the Puerto Rican people's concerns. For example, in the Senate's first hearings on the Vieques issue Sept. 22, representatives of the Puerto Ricans' point of view were not even invited.

"People have perceived that the United States has not been as good as they were told," said historian Ivonne Acosta. "In this Vieques matter, they are now seeing the dark side. They're angry at the prejudice and the abuse, and they are angry that people in Washington don't understand us."

Many people here, of all political ideologies, are mindful of the days of strict colonial rule and political repression. They are willing to respect those who gave their lives for their cause. They pay a certain reverence, for example, to the nationalists freed in 1979 and who were convicted of an attack on Congress in 1954 that left five congressmen injured.

For those who favor Puerto Rico becoming an independent nation, the Vieques issue is a step toward demilitarization and freedom, while statehooders see it as a matter of civil rights and social justice for American citizens.

These complex distinctions and their explanation make the U.S.-Puerto Rican relationship difficult to understand.

Driven by cheap labor and massive tax breaks for U.S. corporations, Puerto Rico has the highest standard of living in Latin America and many of the civil-rights protections of its own and the U.S. constitutions. As long as migration provided a needed escape valve and billions of federal aid dollars kept coming in, most Puerto Ricans, though always caught in the throes of the political status debate, have been content.

Puerto Rico, although granted some autonomy 47 years ago, does not truly govern itself. Some here argue that it remains little more than a colony today despite the traditional trappings of a democratic state.

Rooted in the island's history is fear of expressing any type of nationalism. History also shows a resistance in Congress to political status changes that would affect the country's military or economic interests. This combination has pushed some local groups here to fight back, sometimes violently.

To create its current commonwealth status, the island's residents were allowed to organize a government based on a constitution that they would adopt and the U.S. Congress would have to approve. However, Congress, which already had ruled out statehood or independence as options, made changes to the approved constitution, despite protests from island leaders. Voters in Puerto Rico ratified the commonwealth status in 1952

A law passed here in 1948, then abolished nine years later, made it a crime to advocate the overthrow or destruction of the island government, or to publish, sell or exhibit any literature that threatened the government. First it was used to jail nationalist leaders, but then was applied to ordinary citizens who had Puerto Rican flags or even visited the graves of those known to favor independence. Known as the Gag Law, it had the lasting effect of making such people social pariahs, blocking many from jobs and forcing others off the island.

But despite the resentment such policies created, there has been no major surge of people favoring independence. In last December's plebiscite, widely boycotted by some groups favoring independent status, just 2 percent voted for independence. Gov. Pedro Rossello, a member of the pro-statehood party, doesn't see current events as signs of a newfound nationalism. He calls it "a sense of Puerto Rican-ness."

If Puerto Rico were to ask for independence now, Rossello said, Congress would grant it tomorrow given all the "manipulated and orchestrated" images that are making the island seem anti-American to those in Washington.

"If the people of Puerto Rico want independence, they don't have to plant bombs or rob banks," he said in reference to the FALN members just released. "What they have to do is vote for it."

Some say that, given Puerto Rico's history, this view seems a bit naive.

"The expression of nationalism in Puerto Rico has always been cultural, and that cultural expression never is seen in electoral terms because we've only had the last 12 years without repression," said political analyst Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua.

He was referring to the 1987 discovery of 146,000 files compiled by Puerto Rican police, at the behest of the FBI, on those thought to favor independence.

"While it was a crime to be an independentista, who was going to vote for independence?" he asked.

Garcia Passalacqua believes that behind the constant flag waving and heated rhetoric also lies a grudge. The last 10 years of failed legislation and hearings on the island's status in Congress have not produced a bill aimed at true self-determination for Puerto Rico, yet contained clear messages of rejection to a relatively poor society that speaks another language and has a distinct culture from that of the United States.

During hearings last year, Congress closed off any possibility of more autonomy in the current commonwealth status, would only discuss independence if U.S. bases permanently remained on the island, and pushed to mandate public education in English if it were to even consider statehood.

More recently, the Senate's Military Readiness subcommittee's hearings on Vieques Sept. 22 fostered resentment because its chair, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., sought to only present the Navy's point of view in this confrontation. His threats to close the Naval Station Roosevelt Roads and talk of cutting federal-aid benefits if the Navy is not allowed to stay were widely seen as blackmail here. Moreover, criticism from U.S. politicians of the clemency deal is further increasing anti-Washington sentiment.

Whether rooted in resentment or nationalism, recent events in Puerto Rico point to dichotomies some say are not contradictions at all. Given decades of complex feelings among Puerto Ricans about the United States, fighting back against Washington isn't incompatible with valuing American citizenship. Neither do many see a conflict in placing first a Puerto Rican identity while still embracing close ties to the United States.

Regardless of whether people here believe Puerto Rico should be a state, an independent country or remain tied to the United States in a "new and improved" commonwealth, there is a new disposition to challenge Washington.

"It's the new personality of Puerto Rico," said Noel Colon Martinez, former head of the Puerto Rico Bar Association and an independence activist.

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