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Puerto Rico Survives The Transition (With Only Minor Injuries)

by Lance Oliver

January 5, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rico has survived the transition, Sila Calderón has taken her traditional walk to La Fortaleza, Pedro Rosselló has fled to Harvard and now the new administration must begin the business of actually governing, a task entirely different from election campaigning.

The entire transition process confirmed the suspicion that the real battle in 2000 was not between Calderón and Carlos Pesquera, but between Calderón and Rosselló.

The transition process was particularly rancorous because the focus was not on a smooth transfer of power but on digging up yet more ammunition to use against the outgoing Rosselló administration. By painting as negative a picture as possible of the government and economy it was inheriting, the new regime laid the groundwork for passing the blame if things go badly in the early years of the term.

This was easy to do because of the general public resentment toward former governor. Only party faithful still glowing in a misguided, nostalgic yearning for the great victories of 1992 and 1996 were sorry to see Rosselló slip off to Boston in the middle of the inauguration ceremony. The rest of Puerto Rico realizes those victories are now history. Few people today would vote for Rosselló for any elected position.

Given such public sentiment, most people were willing to believe a lot of the incoming administration’s accusations about the state of the government and economy being left behind.

The petty nastiness continued into the inauguration. Traditionally, the outgoing governor picks up the governor-elect for a ride to the ceremony. Calderón refused. In turn, Rosselló left the ceremony before her speech.

It was just as well. Much of Calderón’s inauguration speech was a promise to be the anti-Rosselló. She promised the audience "a government true to your aspirations" not because Pesquera had offered something different in the campaign, but because Rosselló had given the people something else in recent years.

After all, it was Rosselló who was first elected in 1992 with the slogan "The people speak and I obey," and then went on to make that the most inaccurate and inappropriate campaign slogan in history by, for better or worse, completely ignoring public sentiment time after time.

Calderón stressed her promise to eliminate corruption from the government because she had successfully painted the Rosselló administration as soft on corruption. She said she would keep working to stop Navy training on Vieques immediately, not in three years, because Rosselló had agreed to let it continue for now.

The inauguration, itself, again displayed multiple examples of that strange mix that exists almost nowhere in the world except Puerto Rico: the trappings of nationhood without the powers of nationhood; the yearning for the authority of sovereignty without the will to accept the responsibilities of sovereignty.

On one hand, the event was attended by multiple heads of state, something not seen at a governor’s inauguration in many of the 50 U.S. states. On the other hand, there was the disorganized nature of the event. Security was so ineffectual that many people squeezed into the seating area reserved for invited guests and the area was so clogged, the color guard couldn’t march through as planned.

One other sign of amateurish handling: Any novice spin artist would have ensured that the governor gave her address against either a background of admiring supporters or patriotic colors. Instead, directly behind Calderón stood earplug-equipped security agents constantly conferring among themselves and milling about.

Considering the generally uninteresting speech that was given, the guys (and one woman) in earplugs were more than enough to distract the television audience away from the message and create the impression Calderón was the most extensively guarded public official in the world. Whoever was in charge of these details should have lost his job on the first day of the Calderón administration.

Inconsequential issues of spin and imagery aside, what will really matter over the next four years is whether the new governor, unlike the old one who pledged to listen and obey but did neither, keeps her promises. Since she ran for mayor of San Juan in 1996, she has portrayed herself as a different kind of politician. She vowed not to overlook corruption just because it is committed by her party and to strive for consensus rather than rule by brute force.

She deserves time before she is judged, but the contentious nature of the transition was not a good omen.

Will we see, over the next four years, the non-partisan leader Calderón promised to be or the winner-take-the-spoils attitude that drifted over the transition period? Will we see a capable administration with private-sector attitudes and efficiency or the same sort of good-enough-for-government-work business as usual demonstrated at the inauguration?

Only time will tell.

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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