By Ruth Conniff
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February 11, 2004
In early February, more than 100 Army reservists left their native island of Puerto Rico bound for the Middle East. On the island's Camp Santiago, another 900 troops are training for deployment.
As of Feb. 7, 14 soldiers with island addresses or Puerto Rican roots have died in Iraq since the beginning of hostilities. This number shows how this island of 4 million people has suffered disproportionately. (By comparison, New York state, with nearly 19 million inhabitants, lists only 21 casualties.)
While some Puerto Ricans may view the deaths as a source of pride, it is unfortunate that these casualties merely reflect the endemic unfairness of the island's colonial status.
Puerto Ricans are often not recognized as American citizens even though they have held such classification since 1917. They are not allowed to vote for the president of the United States and they have no voting representative in Congress. What's worse, more than 169,000 Puerto Ricans have served in World Wars I and II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, even though the people had no legal democratic representation.
Not much has changed since then.
Like many government leaders who supported the war despite the majority of their population's opposition, Puerto Rico's Gov. Sila M. Calderon (accent over the o) has done the same.
Calderon, whose party supports the commonwealth status quo, has voiced support for the American action in Iraq and has not opposed the sending of Puerto Rican troops.
Currently, about 800 of the 4,700 active Reserve and National Guard troops from the island are in the Middle East, according to Jose Pagan, an Army spokesman based in Puerto Rico.
At Camp Santiago, soldiers are trained about Iraq's culture and how to deal with protests -- clear signs that many of these soldiers will be sent to face the dangers of the American occupation. With troop rotation intensifying, there seems to be an acceleration of deployment of Puerto Rican soldiers to keep up with the shifts.
Some groups like the Puerto Rico Bar Association and the Independence Party have registered strong protests against the deployments. In an attempt to draw attention to Puerto Ricans' lack of elected representatives, even the usually pro-U.S. statehood party has raised concerns about the disproportionate body count suffered by islanders.
While many mainland Americans are becoming increasingly dismayed by the length of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, they at least had the opportunity to vote for the president and their members of Congress. Puerto Ricans, who have fought bravely in the U.S. armed services for almost 90 years and through five major conflicts, are being increasingly exposed to dangers in service of a government that they have no direct input into.
Of the many injustices and missteps involved in the Bush administration's incursion into Iraq, the sacrifice of Puerto Rican lives is among the most cruelly unfair.
Ed Morales, who is Puerto Rican-American, is a contributor to the Village Voice and Newsday in New York, and author of "Living in Spanglish" (St. Martin's Press, 2002). He can be reached at email@example.com.