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When is a vote a vote? Would a vote by any other name smell as sweet?

Related Gully Coverage

Election 2000
Posturers, panderers, pretenders, and special interests.

Puerto Rico at the Crossroads
Our complete articles.

tito auger

The 1999 Vieques encampment.

Election 2000

When Votes Don't Count:
Dadalandia, Puerto Rico

by Kelly Cogswell

DECEMBER 11, 2000. For this long evil month I've sweated at night asking—what's in a vote? When is a vote a vote? Would a vote by any other name smell as sweet when the slates of candidates have already been stunk up in the primary of unreformed campaign finance? Some years I don't vote. Even when I do, I usually imagine my vote and my voice are largely irrelevant to the political behemoth.

Lately, I've begun to think that there is some intrinsic power in a vote. The mind-changing factor was not the tight race in Florida where every single vote would count if they were counted, but the political quagmire of Puerto Rico. You know the place, the Caribbean island full of U.S. citizens who don't have any federal votes at all. No vote for President. None for Senate or the House of Representatives. Not just convicted felons, children, or the mentally disabled are denied votes, but the entire unemancipated U.S. colony.

The consequences of votelessness, and the subsequent lack even of mis-representation, is that it leaves Puerto Ricans utterly dependent on the benevolence of a colonial power and on back door influence. And the effect of these cloak-and-dagger compromises is an anti-democratic political culture rife with corruption and toadyism.

An Embarrassment of Votes
The irony is that there are plenty of votes in Puerto Rico. Why, you can vote for almost anything at the drop of hat or a pin or a plantain. Politicos regularly hold status referendums allowing the Puerto Rican people to cast their votes in preference of statehood, "commonwealth"—the colonial status quo—or independence. No one mentions that the votes don't count. None of them. No matter whether chads are completely detached or just pregnant. Because only the U.S. Congress can change the colony's status.

This year Puerto Ricans almost voted for President. The pro-statehood party wanted to include the Bush and Gore slates on their local ballots. Those votes wouldn't have counted either, since Puerto Rico's not a state and doesn't have any electors, but what the hell, it gives you a nice, warm feeling to participate.

puerto rican governor pedro roselloThen there's the contested Puerto Rican island of Vieques. The decades-old movement to close down the bombing ranges there, and evict the military from its expropriated land was relaunched when an errant Navy bomb killed the civilian David Sanes Rodriguez on April 19, 1999. The pro-statehood Governor Pedro Roselló, temporarily critical of the U.S. after Sanes death and massive Puerto Rican protests, did an about face by agreeing to Clinton's 1999 Presidential Directive on Vieques.

That compromise restored bombing on the contested Puerto Rican island, though with inert bombs. It won the return of some land, not to the people of Vieques from whom it was stolen, but to Roselló's corrupt Puerto Rican government. Roselló promised to deploy Puerto Rican police to squash protesters on Vieques. He also agreed to a Navy-determined referendum for the people of Vieques—anytime before or on February 1, 2002—letting them trade their land for cash and live Navy ammo, or to evict the Navy by 2003.

This referendum, in which the Navy sets the terms as well as the date, promises to be one more exercise in absurdity where votes are meaningless unless you approve the Navy's plan, in which case I predict votes will suddenly count.

Remember, this is Dadalandia. The political reality was established in 1898 when U.S. troops landed in Puerto Rico and seized the island as booty, just when Spain was about to give it autonomy. Since then, irrationality has ruled, while irony and the arbitrary have embedded themselves in history. It is perfect for the paranoid, since there are always unseen forces at work.

Just this year, the FBI released files showing that for more than 40 years it had waged a secret war against Puerto Rico's independence movements, snooping, undermining, repressing at will. FBI Director Louis Freeh acknowledged at a congressional hearing in March that the agency had engaged in "egregious illegal action, maybe criminal action" in Puerto Rico for years, violating the civil rights of many there.

Referring to the infamous COINTELPRO program, which was ruthlessly applied in Puerto Rico, Freeh said, "Particularly in the 1960's, the FBI did operate a program that did tremendous destruction to many people, to the country, and certainly to the FBI." The declassified FBI materials—1.8 million documents—may hold the answers as to whether or not the agency had a hand in a series of bombings and other acts of violence against independence activists in the 1960's and 1970's, as some suspect.

puerto rican governor sila maria calderonIn the face of such futility I have great sympathy for Lolita Lebrón who in 1954 fired her pistol into the U.S. Congress, but killed no one with her faux metallic Puerto Rican vote. Instead of bringing out the arsenal, on Tuesday, November 7, in a great display of hopefulness, Puerto Ricans dumped Roselló's corrupt pro-statehood party and elected as new governor Sila Calderón, of the Popular Democratic Party, which supports the existing commonwealth status.

Ghost Busters
Calderón, the San Juan mayor, is the first woman governor in the history of Puerto Rico, and a self-described anti-corruption, anti-Navy advocate. If she succeeds in even bringing some level of transparency to the government her administration would be a great success.

Calderón has already called for an immediate withdrawal of the U.S. Navy from Vieques. She has pledged to remove Puerto Rican guards from around the Navy base when she is inaugurated on January 2.

Vieques activists wait skeptically to see if Calderón keeps her promises, while the pro-statehood Roselló has urged her to back down, saying the U.S. Navy will use her political insolence to dump the current agreement, and resume firing live rounds in Vieques. I say, what has she got to lose? The directive has never been legally binding (an agreement between a colony and a colonial power is always legal toilet paper), and any referendum will be a meaningless pageant, so why not at least write your own script?

Puerto Rico should be a lesson to all of us who feel powerless and disgusted by political glass ceilings, even if they are substantially higher in the U.S. than in San Juan. They aren't shatterproof. And we who have the extra space to swing a sledge hammer should aim it at career politicians, Republican and Democrat alike, and reclaim democracy. Average citizens could do it, infiltrating city and town councils, and state legislatures. At the very least we could get the damn voting machines fixed. A couple of bake sales should do it.

Related links:

For details on the FBI's secret war against the Puerto Rican independence movement, see chapter 4 of The Cointelpro Papers by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall.

For The Militant's Files detail FBI's war on Puerto Rican independence fight.

For Dada Online. Everything you ever wanted to know about Dada, includes Dada poems and art. Where the surreal is real.

For info on Vieques protests check out the archives link at the very bottom of the page at Vieques Libre.

For the U.S. Navy's side of the Vieques story. Don't miss the sections "The Navy Cares" and "Facts vs. Allegations."

For Complete Coverage Puerto Rico

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