By Paul Lewis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 18, 2007
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The political activists, brown envelopes tucked under their arms, staked out the high school gates just after sunrise. When students emerged from the graffiti-scorched streets of the Rio Piedra neighborhood here and began streaming toward their school, the pro-independence advocates ripped open the envelopes and began handing the teens fliers emblazoned with the slogan: "Our youth should not go to war."
At the bottom of the leaflet was a tear sheet that students could sign and later hand to teachers, to request that students' personal contact information not be released to the U.S. Defense Department or to anyone involved in military recruiting.
The scene outside the Ramon Vila Mayo high school unfolded at schools throughout Puerto Rico this week as the academic year opened. On this island with a long tradition of military service, pro-independence advocates are tapping the territory's growing anti-Iraq war sentiment to revitalize their cause. As a result, 57 percent of Puerto Rico's 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders, or their parents, have signed forms over the past year withholding contact information from the Pentagon -- effectively barring U.S. recruiters from reaching out to an estimated 65,000 high school students.
"If the death of a Puerto Rican soldier is tragic, it's more tragic if that soldier has no say in that war," said Juan Dalmau, secretary general of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP). His efforts are saving the island's children from becoming "colonial cannon meat," he said.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, all schools receiving U.S. federal funding must provide their students' names, addresses and phone numbers to the military unless the child or parents sign an opt-out form. Puerto Rico received $1.88 billion in U.S. education funds this year. For five years, PIP has issued opt-out forms to about 120,000 students in Puerto Rico and encouraged them to sign -- and independista activists expect this year to mark their most successful effort yet.
Such actions come as other antiwar groups on the island are seeking to undercut military recruiting, as well. For example, the Coalition of Citizens Against Militarism, an association of pacifist groups, plans to visit about 70 schools on the island in the coming days, meaning that many students will receive two, or even three, opt-out forms by the end of August.
Antiwar advocates have even gained direct access to Puerto Rican classrooms under a controversial directive issued last September by Rafael Aragunde, the island's education secretary, granting "equal access" by pacifist groups and military recruiters.
Although he will not bar recruiters from schools, Aragunde said, he has a "lot of sympathy" for what pacifist groups are trying to accomplish. "I've always felt that one of the byproducts of a good educational system is that you have citizens who will defend pacifism," he said. "I think that just like we have to insist on ecological values, we have to insist on pacifist values." Aragunde described his relations with military recruiters as "cordial."
Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy, acknowledged that the counter-recruiting campaigns are having an impact. "We're drawing less than the national average" in Puerto Rico, he said.
In the 2003-06 period, 4,947 Puerto Rican men and women enlisted in the Army or Reserves, or approximately 123 people per 100,000 residents, according to Pentagon data. That is below the average contribution of U.S. states, and far below the numbers in states such as Alabama, Kansas, Montana and Oklahoma, each of which enlists more than 200 men and women per 100,000, according to Army data.
"We're not taking more than our share from Puerto Rico," Carr said. "We're taking less than our share, because that's what they'll give us." Carr said he suspects that opt-out rates for states in the continental United States rarely break beyond 10 percent -- a far cry from the nearly 60 percent on the island.
Reaction outside the gates of the Ramon Vila Mayo school this week seem to confirm that suspicion. A few students shrugged off the political activists' overtures, while others smiled and declared their interest in joining the "Yankee" military. But most of the teens politely accepted the forms, nodded and even fetched pens from their school bags.
Calls for Puerto Rico's independence have existed since the days of Spanish colonial rule and continued after the United States seized control of the island in 1898. In the 1950s, a branch of the movement attempted a violent uprising. Although many Puerto Ricans express deep patriotism for the island, the independence impulse has never translated in the polls -- either in elections or in successive plebiscites on the status of the territory, in which independence has repeatedly been rejected.
Leaders from the island's two major political parties say that their PIP opponents are exploiting young people to advance their separatist grievances. And Pentagon officials accuse the activists of "manipulating" impressionable young people.
"What's going on in Puerto Rico is an artificial circumstance, where a group is trying to persuade students to take their name off a list, and of course that's going to meet in some change in behavior," Carr said. "In the event that someone approaches a young person and their voluntary behavior is to take an opt-out card and give it to their teacher, there's nothing we can or should do in that case. That's free speech. But it's curious speech, because it's manipulating the flow of information . . . and that is unhealthy."
The Pentagon said it is on track to meet its recruiting targets for this fiscal year. However, despite a $3.2 billion national recruitment campaign, the military was forced to bring back 1,000 former recruiters to help with the summer months -- the peak recruiting period -- and late last month introduced a $20,000 "quick-ship" bonus for recruits willing to enter training before October. Carr said that Puerto Rico's anti-military drive could force recruiters to focus on states such as Texas, where they meet with less resistance.
Maj. Ricardo Sierra, who runs eight of Puerto Rico's 14 Army recruiting stations, rejected the notion that anti-recruitment efforts are affecting his operations. High school students are not his target demographic, he said, because few speak English well enough to pass military entrance exams. Instead, Sierra said, recruiters are meeting targets by contacting college-educated students.
"We do target [high school students], we do campaigns, we talk to the seniors, but we don't get a whole lot of them," Sierra said, estimating that the U.S. military enlists an average of 22 Puerto Rican high school graduates per year.
Senior chief Joe Vega, who heads the island's three Navy recruiting stations, said that "if Puerto Rico was a fully bilingual state or country, the recruiting contribution would be much higher." His top recruiter, Chief Select Ernesta Marrero, said that many young people sign up out of patriotism or a sense of obligation to the United States.
"Being part of the U.S. is what gives them the right to their freedom, democracy, the chance to voice their opinions -- it's the constitution that we [the military] uphold," Marrero said.
Sonia Santiago, founder of the local group Mothers Against War, said her volunteers visit schools to "unmask" the way in which recruiters promise "villas y castillas" (villas and castles) that they cannot deliver. One persuasive tactic, she added, is to ask children how their mothers would feel if they were injured or killed in war.
Aragunde, the education secretary and a self-declared independista, said that most Puerto Ricans do not view the U.S. armed forces as "their military." According to a recent poll by the Puerto Rican daily El Nuevo Día, 75 percent of commonwealth residents oppose the Iraq war -- a figure that has escalated with the number of Puerto Ricans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon lists 37 service members from the island as killed in action in the two conflicts, but local antiwar groups say the number exceeds 80, including suicides and soldiers recruited from the U.S. mainland.
Deaths of all Puerto Rican troops make headlines here. The funeral in March of Army Cpl. Jason Nunez, 22, proved particularly emotional. In images broadcast throughout the island, his mother removed the U.S. flag from her son's coffin and deliberately dropped it to the floor. She later implored other parents not to allow their children to fight in the U.S. military.
Aragunde said such images shape public opinion. "You don't want children fighting on the streets, you don't want children cheating, nor stealing, and you don't want them to think that an alternative to solving any conflict is war," he said. "I feel it's my obligation to defend that value."