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Orlando Sentinel

Puerto Rico Has All Eyes On Calderon

by Maria T. Padilla, Sentinel Columnist

January 3, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

Many Puerto Ricans anxiously await news of how the island's new governor, Sila Calderon, will reshape island attitudes and ties to the millions of people who have migrated to the United States.

Historically, there hasn't been a close relationship between the distant cousins, although some island leaders have done better than others.

A few island governors have been astute in cultivating the Puerto Rican population in the United States to generate an echo of voices benefiting the island. But some leaders in Puerto Rico barely acknowledged the new branch of the family tree. That's getting harder to do, however.

More than 3 million Puerto Ricans live in the United States -- nearly as many as reside in Puerto Rico , a U.S. territory. Which means the potential to influence issues is as great here as with people on the island. Some might even say it's greater here.

Puerto Rico gained some political autonomy from the United States in 1952. But a half-century later, the island still has only a nonvoting delegate in Congress, and islanders can't vote for president. The Puerto Rican community here can flex more political muscle.

So a new Puerto Rican administration raises a tantalizing question about which direction it will take.

It was only two administrations ago that another island leader, Rafael Hernandez Colon, eyed the migrant population with increasing appetite. He boosted the island government's federal-affairs offices, of which there are two in Florida.

He then used these offices to link arms with Puerto Rican activists to mobilize the stateside community. At the time, he was embroiled in negotiations with Congress to hold an island vote on Puerto Rico 's political future.

It seemed a good match. The pioneer generation that came over decades ago tends to favor the existing commonwealth relationship with the United States, as did Hernandez Colon. Generations born here are likelier to be stronger advocates of independence -- but in a pinch, they will side with commonwealth forces.

Orlando, however, stands out in this equation. When islanders began settling here in the late 1970s, they were more educated and middle class than earlier migrants. Many also were affiliated with Puerto Rico 's pro- statehood party.

The outgoing pro- statehood governor capitalized on the Orlando connection. When he entered office in 1993, he believed Puerto Rican activists were hostile toward island statehood . So he ignored them. But he kept an eye on Orlando, opening a federal-affairs office here in 1995 and visiting many times.

The Orlando office has been more apolitical than anything else. It has conducted voter-registration drives and supported education issues but has done little else to politically mobilize the region's sizable Puerto Rican population.

That potential remains intriguing. Calderon, who was inaugurated Tuesday, has said little about the future of the federal-affairs offices. Reading the coffee beans, however, isn't too difficult.

Calderon has vowed to step up plans to oust the U.S. Navy from Vieques, where the military has conducted target exercises for 60 years. Last year, the Navy accidentally killed a civilian worker.

In rare political unanimity, Puerto Ricans -- here and there -- speak as one on Vieques.

It's a sure bet that Calderon will want to make the two groups kissing cousins once again to help win this political battle.

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