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Mr. Acevedo Goes To Washington

Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vila has ambitious plans to achieve economic development incentives for Puerto Rico, tackle the Vieques issue and increase federal aid to the island


January 11, 2001
Copyright © 2001 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vila is counting on the old adage that the people united can never be defeated.

To that end, he created a Permanent Council made up of the island’s top economic leaders–including from the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce and the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association–to work with him in his new office. He expects that this united front will provide the necessary push to force through some kind of economic incentive for Puerto Rico in the 107th U.S. Congress that took office last week.

"I have great hopes that if we go there united in a group representing [Gov. Sila Calderon], the resident commissioner, and Puerto Rico’s productive sector, we will achieve some incentive for investment in Puerto Rico," Acevedo Vila said in an exclusive interview with CARIBBEAN BUSINESS, in which he discussed his priorities for the four year terms.

At 42, Acevedo Vila is one of the youngest resident commissioners to set foot on Capitol Hill, where Puerto Rico’s 3.8 million U.S. citizens have had a non-voting representative since 1900. The Popular Democratic Party (PDP) official, who has been a lawmaker in the local Legislature since 1993, replaces outgoing New Progressive Party (NPP) Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barcelo, who lost his bid for a third term in Washington, D.C.

While Romero Barcelo focused mainly on achieving increased federal funding for the island, as well as defending statehood, Acevedo Vila says his agenda will be centered primarily on promoting economic development through federal investment incentives. He believes commonwealth status, as Puerto Rico’s Estado Libre Asociado is known in English, provides unique tools to do so.

One particular goal that the new resident commissioner has set for himself is achieving the extension of the Section 30A wage credit in the U.S. Internal Revenue Code. Section 30A was phased out in 1996 along with the Section 936 tax credit for U.S. manufacturing operations on the island. The wage credit acts as an engine of job creation because it provides a federal tax break to U.S. companies based on the number of jobs provided by a company.

As good news in that front, Acevedo Vila says "fortune tellers" in the U.S. capital finger Rep. Phil Crane, (R-Illinois), as the possible new chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Crane, one of the authors of the bill on 30A, would replace Republican Bill Archer, from Texas, who has been opposed to extending any credits to Puerto Rico.

"I’m going to do battle for social aid programs that do greater justice to Puerto Rico, but at the same time I’m going to ask them to give me tools for economic development," Acevedo Vila said. "If you promote 30A as corporate welfare you won’t be successful, but if you promote it as a tool to create jobs in Puerto Rico what you’re asking them is precisely to take us off dependency."

Commonwealth, Acevedo Vila believes, provides the necessary flexibility to negotiate with the federal government when it comes to extending social aid programs not currently applicable to Puerto Rico, such as the Supplemental Security Income (SSI). SSI provides cash assistance to poor people with disabilities.

Puerto Rico, he said, could accept a limited application of the program and offer to match a portion of the funds, thereby reducing the burden on the U.S. Treasury and making extension of such aid more plausible.

"Let’s sit down and identify which part of the elderly medically indigent population has the greatest need and let’s make an application of the program with different rules in which Puerto Rico may have to contribute from its own budget," Acevedo Vila said. "In that way, the federal government can see our commitment to social justice and we can help the population over 75 not currently covered under SSI."

It’s precisely in the area of health that Acevedo Vila sees the greatest potential of achievement in the U.S. Congress. That’s because after a contested presidential election, Republicans and Democrats will have to seek issues in which they agree to move forward and meet the demands of the people.

"I would venture to predict that one of the areas where there will be pressure from the North American people will be in modifications to health programs," Acevedo Vila said. "We have to be in that discussion from the beginning so that Puerto Ricans can receive the maximum benefit in any positive development that happens in that area."

Asked why he trusts that he will be successful in achieving what the two-term Rossello administration could not, despite hefty investments in lobbyists and strong influence within the administration of President Bill Clinton, Acevedo Vila mentioned the building of a consensus among economic sectors here and a different focus there.

"Their objective was different. They’re objective was to invest in selling statehood," he said. "If they had invested to lobby for 30A I don’t have the slightest doubt that it would have been approved. But that was not the priority. I don’t mean to say they didn’t work on it, but their priorities were inverted."

Another difference Acevedo Vila highlights is the fact that he will unite with the three Puerto Rican representatives in the U.S. Congress — Reps. Luis Gutierrez, (D-Illinois), Jose Serrano, (D-NY), and Nydia Velazquez, (D-NY), to fight for Puerto Rico-related issues. Gutierrez and Velazquez had less than cordial relations with Romero Barcelo, mostly over their status disagreements.

"This is very important for me because we’re going to be able to join in many issues, the three Puerto Rican Congress members and myself, representing a single position," he said. "That’s something that hasn’t happened since the first fight in favor of 936 back in 1994," after which relations between Romero, and Gutierrez and Velazquez deteriorated.

Although Serrano and Acevedo Vila have not seen eye-to-eye on the status issue, the fledgling resident commissioner says that’s water under the bridge as Serrano has offered his position in the House Appropriations Committee for the benefit of Puerto Rico. In 1998, Serrano backed the bill filed by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) that would have enabled a congressionally backed plebiscite in Puerto Rico and which included a definition of commonwealth as a territory, which the PDP opposed.

"We’re both in an attitude of collaboration," Acevedo Vila said, adding that he also was well received during a recent trip to the capital by U.S. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Missouri), who supported Romero Barcelo.

Not only is Acevedo Vila planning to rebuild some bridges, as with Gephardt, but he also wants to convince those who joined in his efforts to defeat the Young bill because they opposed statehood to support his economic development proposals.

"The challenge that we have is to make those people who were with us simply to stop statehood to join with us to push for 30A and for other just causes for the Puerto Rican people," he said.

One such cause is attempting to exempt Puerto Rico from U.S. cabotage laws, he said. Maritime cabotage laws regulate commerce in U.S. territorial waters, including Puerto Rico. This strictly limits the way in which island exports can be shipped.

The Rossello administration’s position was that if cabotage laws were eliminated across the board for all States, Puerto Rico should be included, but no individual exemption should be made for the island.

"If you can convince the Congress that by exempting us from the cabotage laws they would give us a new tool that would make us more competitive, and thereby promote our economic development, you may have more possibilities of achieving the exemption," Acevedo Vila said.

The U.S. Virgin Islands, for one, is exempted from such cabotage laws, so Acevedo Vila said they’re not going to ask for something that is new or alien in the current U.S. government system.

When it comes to convincing the Feds of what Puerto Rico needs, Acevedo Vila acknowledges that lobbyists will be used, although he says the Calderon administration will not spend as much as the Rossello administration. Though no official numbers have been provided, reports have placed that amount as high as $200 million over the eight-year period.

Acevedo Vila mentioned the firm of Winston & Strawn, which worked for Calderon under her tenure as mayor of San Juan and the firm of Republican lobbyist Charlie Black, Black Healy, as two that likely will be instrumental in their efforts. Black, a close friend of the Bush family, will be especially crucial now that Texas Gov. George W. Bush was finally confirmed as the new president.

Another important element in the equation will be the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA). Under the Rossello administration, Romero Barcelo and the different heads of that office did not always get along.

"I assure you that not only will I work as a team with the three Puerto Rican Congress members but I’m also going to work as a team with whomever heads the Puerto Rico office in Washington," Acevedo Vila said. "That’s something that people who know Washington have almost implored me to do."

Strengthening ties with the Puerto Rican communities in the United States is another priority for Acevedo Vila, who has been a political junkie since his early teens when he’d leave childhood games to approach the table where adults were talking politics and chime in.

"We always ask a lot of the Puerto Rican community there but we give too little," he said. "Every time there’s a hurricane, or trouble like with 936, we go up there and they’ve always been there for us. I’ve never seen us mobilize here to support them in the struggles they have in New York, Chicago or New Jersey."

Such mutual cooperation, Acevedo Vila hopes, will be successful in softening some of the anti-commonwealth sentiment, which he said was promoted through the 106th Congress by the outgoing pro-statehood administration. This included the Young bill and recent congressional hearings where Democrats and Republicans ostensibly rejected the PDP’s 1998 commonwealth enhancement proposal.

"With our triumph, I assure you that those attitudes will begin to change," he said. "I think it’s going to be a difficult challenge. It won’t be easy but some possibilities for change will begin to happen and we need to take advantage of them."

Changes also are needed in the U.S. policy toward Vieques, Acevedo Vila said, adding that this is perhaps the most urgent item on his agenda. How to approach this issue, however, depends greatly on the new president. His hope is that Clinton responds to demands by Puerto Rican leaders here before his term ends Jan. 20.

In January 2000, Clinton issued a series of directives, which were supported by the Rossello administration. These included a referendum in which the residents of Vieques can determine the future of U.S. Navy military practices on that island, which would cease by 2003. Still, Calderon and other island leaders have asked Clinton to order the Navy out now.

"If nothing happens from now until Jan. 20, we’ll have to work with the new president," Acevedo Vila said. "I’m the first one to acknowledge that this is a very difficult topic because it involves heated passions on our side, but also heated passions on their side."

Asked whether the PDP’s position on Vieques clashes with one of the commonwealth’s main pillars–common defense–Acevedo Vila said there was no such contradiction because Vieques is an issue of human and civil rights, superseding any common defense claims.

"Neither the PDP nor the people of Puerto Rico are asking the Navy to leave Puerto Rico or for the bases to be closed," he said. "There is no such demand."

The demand is for the Navy to leave Vieques, which it has occupied for 60 years for military purposes, and the Nov. 7 election sent a clear message of what the outcome of any referendum in Vieques would be, Acevedo Vila said.

"In Vieques, every candidate who promoted immediate peace for Vieques won by a landslide, including Calderon, myself, the candidate for mayor, and if you add to that the votes for the pro-independence candidates, the results are overwhelming," Acevedo Vila said. "What the Navy has to understand is that it’s over. The numbers are there. What the Navy has to understand is that if they want a plebiscite they’re going to be humiliated."

Although he credits Clinton with acknowledging the problem in Vieques and with seeking a solution, Acevedo Vila believes that waiting until 2003 to get the Navy out is unacceptable.

"That’s like telling Rosa Parks that she has to sit in the back of the bus for three more years," he said. "That’s like saying to her ‘You’re right [to fight racism] but you have to sit in the back of the bus for three more years and then we give you the bus.’"

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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