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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
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
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
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.