Puerto Rico’s Search for Identity Strains Ties With U.S.

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In an explosion of fury on the Fourth of July, thousands of Puerto Ricans converged on a U.S. Navy base, waving a U.S. flag with skulls for stars and condemning the “Evil Empire.”

Two days later, Gov. Pedro Rossello, who may well be the most pro-American leader Puerto Rico ever had, asked the United Nations to declare the island a colony whose status must be resolved next year.

This is not how it was meant to be a year ago, when Rossello stood near the beach where U.S. troops invaded in July 1898, exuberantly waved a 51-star flag and promised the island taken from Spain would soon be a U.S. state.


Some lethal stray bombs, some Puerto Rican nationalism and some plain bad luck have hobbled his plan. As a result, Puerto Ricans are going through a summer of unhappy introspection.

“The search for our own identity as a nation has intensified,” said Luis Alberto Ferre, editor of the mass-circulation El Nuevo Dia newspaper. The result, for now, is “an entrenchment of Puerto Rican values.”

Rossello may have inadvertently started it in his eagerness to do away with the island’s U.S. commonwealth status.

Despite his tireless lobbying, the U.S. Congress failed to legislate a binding vote allowing Puerto Ricans to choose statehood, commonwealth or independence.

Without congressional backing, Rossello insisted on holding a nonbinding referendum in December--and lost with 46% support.

Last month, the governor asked the U.N. decolonization committee to place Puerto Rico on a list of non-self-governing territories whose status must be resolved in 2000. It was the “only way to provoke the U.S. Congress [to act] after more than a century of colonialism,” he said. A congressionally backed process would boost support for statehood here, Rossello believes.


Because of the island’s commonwealth status, Puerto Ricans can’t vote for Congress or president unless they live on the mainland--but they can be drafted. They do elect an observer to the House, but he cannot vote.

Other anomalies are less inconvenient: They get $11 billion a year in federal funds but pay no federal taxes.

Even so, Puerto Ricans cling to a nationalism stoked in part by Rossello’s efforts.

“The more Rossello talks about statehood, the more people react, reaffirming their identity,” said Anibal Acevedo Vila, a leader of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party.

“We are definitely a separate people, different from the U.S., even though we’re citizens,” agreed author Rosario Ferre, who supports statehood.

Her hopes rest on the idea--much ridiculed by statehood opponents--that the United States can be molded into something like the European Union, with different nations under one political roof joined by shared ideals and interests.

Recent mishaps on Vieques, a small island 50 miles east of San Juan, haven’t helped the statehood cause. Some 9,300 civilians live between the Navy bombing range and a weapons repository on Vieques, which the Navy says is vital to national defense.


In April, a bombing accident killed a civilian security guard. Then it was revealed that the Navy also accidentally--and illegally--rained hundreds of toxic depleted uranium shells on Vieques.

Rossello and President Clinton both set up inquiry commissions, and the former one demanded in June that the Navy leave Vieques.

On Independence Day, thousands converged on Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, which administers Vieques, to demand the Navy’s ouster. They waved a U.S. flag with skulls for stars and scrawled, “Long Live Free Puerto Rico” on the sign to the base.

Many chafe at the confrontation.

“Fifty years ago the Fourth of July was something of real importance,” columnist Maximo Cerame Vivas wrote in the San Juan Star. “Today, in Puerto Rico, we celebrate the anti-Fourth of July. Anti-Roosevelt Roads, anti-Navy, anti-USA.”

Rosario Ferre regretted “the ‘anti’ feeling, the anti-American feeling. . . . Puerto Ricans haven’t had it, and if they’ve acquired it, it’s being pushed politically.”

Former governor Rafael Hernandez Colon of the Commonwealth Party countered that nationalism has been building naturally for a while with the emergence of Puerto Rican artists and writers, the decision to enter international sports events under a Puerto Rican flag in the 1970s, and even the 1992 World’s Fair in Seville, Spain, where Puerto Rico had a pavilion.


“The United States never understood the density of the culture developing here,” he said.