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Calderón's election and hardline stance has won nothing from President Bush, but a few post-inaugural crumbs.

Related Gully Coverage

Calderón Hangs Tough... For Now
Puerto Rico's newly inaugurated Governor makes big promises.

Puerto Rico at the Crossroads
Our complete articles.


A protestor cuts portions of a fence which had previously been partially torn down along the perimeter of Camp Garcia while riot police stand guard. Vieques, Friday, April 27, 2001. Lynne Sladky

Is Puerto Rico's Governor
Out of Her Depth?

by Toby Eglund

MAY 1, 2001. Big names like Ricky Martin, Benicio del Toro, and Marc Anthony are taking out New York Times ads denouncing the U.S. Navy's practice bombing of the small Puerto Rican island of Vieques. A young Kennedy is actually on site explaining U.S. environmental and human rights abuses. Arrests are mounting.

Since bombing resumed Friday, more than 138 protesters have been carted off, including U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, members of the Puerto Rican Senate, and the mayor of Vieques.

Candidate Calderón
The anti-Navy cause gained momentum from the November election of Puerto Rico's new Governor, Sila Calderón. She ran and won with a pro-Vieques, anti-corruption platform, that included a promise to increase the U.S. colony's powers of self-determination, notably lacking in the Vieques dispute.

As San Juan Mayor, and candidate, she scored big points with voters at the White House meeting when Clinton was attempting to make a deal with then-Governor Pedro Roselló to allow bombing in exchange for development funds. She was reportedly the only opponent, telling the President, 'Our vote is not for sale.' The quotable quote was a real crowd-pleaser.

She was also at the ready for cameras last year when the FBI ousted the encampments of anti-Navy protesters set up after Puerto Rican civilian David Sanes was killed by an errant Navy bomb on April 19, 1999, extolling how the "dignity and prudence" of the protesters showed the entire world how the peaceful people of Puerto Rico loved "freedom and democracy."

Governor Calderón
But as an April 30 editorial in the Puerto Rican daily El Nuevo Día snidely pointed at, that grandstanding occurred when she was a candidate. Now she's governor. And strangely silent about the new round of bombing and protests, and why her election and hardline stance has won nothing from President Bush, but a few post-inaugural crumbs.

On March 2, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld promised Governor Calderón to suspend the Navy bombings for a few weeks until the U.S. Department of Health could review a new local health study showing that Vieques residents have a high rate of heart abnormalities caused by noise from the Navy's practice bombs.

But two weeks ago, the Pentagon unsurprisingly dismissed the health study, and said the more pressing issue was military readiness. A federal court dealt Calderón a further blow by refusing to issue a restraining order. The judge, Gladys Kessler, said health concerns should be explored more fully, and a hearing is scheduled for next month, but a legal victory is as likely as a George Bush signature on the Kyoto Treaty.

When Calderón finally emerged on April 28, it was to speak to a New York Times interviewer. She reiterated her obligation to address the environmental and health concerns stemming from the Navy's activities on Vieques. "These are very poor people and someone has to speak for them," she said, but she also criticized protesters who tore up the fence at Camp García in Vieques on Friday, and carefully pointed out that her opposition to the Navy's presence in Vieques should not be construed as anti-military or anti-American. "This is not an ideological issue, nor is it a political issue," she said. "This is about human rights."

The Opposition
That kind of namby-pamby statement, geared to appease all sides, will please no one. The pro-statehood opposition will continue to warn her that any anti-Navy rhetoric will destroy Puerto Rico by incurring the wrath of the U.S., and to criticize her hypocrisy in sitting safely in her mansion, while others are getting arrested and venturing onto the firing range.

Others, already wary of her party's support for a pro-U.S. Associated Commonwealth status for Puerto Rico, will denounce her as a traitor if she moves one conciliatory inch towards the colonialist power, especially if she has to break a campaign promise and call in Puerto Rican cops to quell protesters.

Calderón shouldn't have been caught by surprise. Figuring out how to square the circle between the nationalism which suffuses both the right and the left in Puerto Rico, with the real politick needed to cope with the mainland giant to the north, has been the eternal conundrum of all Puerto Rican governors since the time of Muñoz Marín, who is alternately hailed as savior and derided as a traitor.

Supporters say Muñoz Marín, the first elected governor of the island, by cutting a commonwealth deal with the U.S. in 1951, saved the island from Haiti-like poverty or a Cuban revolution.

Detractors say what he cut was the legs out from under the nationalist movement (with some help from the FBI), setting a trend of repeated capitulation to American colonialism, which according to Farrique Pesquera, an independence advocate, has destroyed Puerto Rico's self-esteem. Puerto Ricans "have been brainwashed to think that they can't survive without America, that all our air comes from the north," he told the New York Times.

Rising Emotions
Pesquera's position may be gaining popularity, as the intransigence of the Navy towards Vieques and the people of Puerto Rico illuminates just how little power Puerto Ricans have to determine their own fates.

And as emotions rise on both sides, so does the likelihood of a serious accident, if not a deliberate disaster. The Navy military police at Camp García has fired pellet-bags at demonstrators, injuring a woman, a baby, and Vieques' Catholic priest. Protesters report that on Friday, during a religious service, tear gas was sprayed without warning. A sailor and two demonstrators were injured in violent confrontations that day.

On the main island of Puerto Rico on Thursday, anti-Navy protesters roughed up a U.S. Army recruiter near his office in Aguadilla on the west coast. On Saturday, a police bomb squad detonated an explosive device found at a U.S. post office in north coast Arecibo, authorities said. On the walls of the post office someone painted one word, "Vieques."

Meanwhile, the Navy continues bombing the practice range, though dozens of people are still hiding there, according to protest leader Robert Rabin. If the bombs don't get these "human shields," they may well set-off unexploded munitions, as has happened in the past. Another martyr may ignite this usually resigned and peaceful nation.

On the other hand, the death of any Navy personnel may bring violent reprisals from the U.S. government, and a level of repression not seen in Puerto Rico since the seventies.

End Game
To find a solution, Calderón would have to admit what she is desperate not to, that the fight for a bombless Vieques is all about Puerto Rican ideology and politics. It is also about history, identity, and the future.

And no way through the morass can be found without confronting the monster at the center of the maze, the United States, which holds out the promises of wealth, democracy, and safety.

Related links:

For Vieques: Bombs Have Killed Many Civilians.

For up-to-the-minute info on Vieques protests go to Vieques Libre.

For the U.S. Navy's viewpoint regarding Vieques.

For Complete Coverage Puerto Rico

The Gully In Depth

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