Last week, as Army Reserve and National Guard members marched in St. Patrick’s Day parades on the mainland United States, reservists and Guard members in Puerto Rico were engaged in a wholly different kind of exercise: Operation Borinqueneer.
Held in multiple locations around the island, including the port of Ponce and the Coliseo Roberto Clemente in San Juan, the four-day operation was billed by officials as “a training exercise designed to enhance the readiness of the National Guard [and Reserve] in performing state roles and responsibilities during emergencies.”
Sponsored in conjunction with the island’s Department of Health, the simulation-based training included exercises that tested respondents’ knowledge and skills with respect to a series of catastrophic events, beginning with an earthquake that registered 7.6 on the Richter scale, followed by a tsunami warning and biological, chemical and nuclear disasters. According to a Health Department representative quoted by Noticel, the other purpose of the exercise was to discern how the department could better coordinate interagency emergency planning and responses.
Among the nearly two dozen participating agencies and entities were FEMA, the Red Cross, the Puerto Rico Police and Fire Departments, and the 911 system.
It sounds innocuous enough, but the multi-day training exercise didn’t just activate first responders; it also triggered the conspiracy theory machine.
Over on the website Counterpunch, Carlos Borrero wrote a thousand-word post about the significance of the training exercises (which he referenced as “Operation Borinquen Response”), arguing that the four-day simulation represented “an extension of the policy of increased militarization of US society to its colony in anticipation of an intensification of mass discontent.”
Referencing the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and other protest movements in big cities on the mainland, and even the recent U.S. rapprochement with Cuba, Borrero suggested that Operation Borinqueneer not be viewed as a preparatory exercise for natural disasters, but as one designed to prepare the military for aggressive interventions in the event of a mass protest in Puerto Rico.
The possibility of such a protest isn’t far-fetched, Borrero argued, given the growing discontent on the island with respect to the debt crisis, and he pointed to a precedent for such action, citing the popular opposition to the Navy’s presence on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. Borrero urged readers to view Operation Borinqueneer as yet another instance of the U.S. flexing its colonial power. Though he made no call to action, Borrero seems to urge readers to cast a skeptical eye on this and other military exercises in Puerto Rico.
And yet, the strongest point Borrero could have made to support his argument is one he overlooked completely: most of the military-affiliated participants in the operation weren’t Puerto Rican, a surprise given the strong presence of the U.S. military on the island. The Army Reserve alone has 10 centers around Puerto Rico; the National Guard has 48 centers spread out across 30 towns and cities, with more than 10,000 members living on the island.
As for the Operation Borinqueneer exercise, more than 1,000 of the participants weren’t Puerto Rican at all; they were from U.S. mainland states, including Nebraska, Vermont and West Virginia. There were also participants from the Virgin Islands and observers from the Dominican Republic and Central America.
The credibility of the emergency preparedness argument, which was verbalized not only by the Department of Defense but also by local officials on the island, is somewhat undermined by the fact that so many participants weren’t from Puerto Rico. If training local first responders for natural and manmade disasters was the goal, a more visible role for the people who are actually the most likely to be the first on the scene — as opposed to mobilized hours or days after the fact — would have made much more sense.