|Promoting Puerto Ricos economic development is the foundation of the legacy Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora wants to build during his term in office.
To that end, he hopes to lead in the Popular Democratic Partys (PDP) pledge to review the massive privatizations of government assets performed under the former Rossello administration. He blames those privatizations for causing what the administration of Gov. Sila Calderon has described as a $400 million deficit.
"Look at the sale of hospitals [under the Rossello administration health reform]," he told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS in a recent interview. "If these had been rented, instead of sold, they would have provided a source of income."
In the Health Department alone, Calderon officials have said the debt is as high as $87 million. That is as part of the not wholly successful sale of government-owned health facilities, which was implemented as part of the program that provides health insurance to the poor.
"Those sales resulted from a political agenda established to re-elect Rossello. That is what foiled the privatization process," Fas Alzamora said.
To review such privatizations, the Senate chief proposes to file legislation to create the post of Special Independent Auditor, whose principal mandate would be to fully scrutinize all privatized government services.
Although he says he wants the new auditor to be objective about the analysis, he admits to his own personal bias. "I believe all essential public services should be controlled by the government. The private sectors goal is to make money while the government, although it may lose money in the process, will have the peoples well being as its primary objective."
Along with health, the priority list of essential privatized services to be reviewed includes the utilities, such as water & electricity, and telecommunications. But Fas Alzamora is very conscious that this scrutiny cannot jeopardize the governments pro-business image. He is emphatic that a mechanism must be found to protect the image of Puerto Rico in the stateside bond market, among potential investors and in the business community in general.
To ensure this, Fas Alzamora said a good option may be the partial buyback of utility services. One possibility is for the government to maintain a controlling interest in the privatized company, instead of making an outright repurchase.
"The sale of the Puerto Rico Telephone is a clear example of where we have backtracked, in terms of higher costs to consumers and in expansion plans. I dont see a private phone company making efforts to take new lines out to the rural areas. Theres no volume and consequently no profit there," he said.
He believes the government should maintain a 51% controlling interest in the phone company. This would mean that instead of selling the 43% of shares the government kept as part of the privatization agreement and which Gov. Pedro Rossello said would be sold, the government should keep those shares and purchase another 8%, to achieve 51% ownership.
The beleaguered Puerto Rico Aqueduct & Sewer Authority (Prasa) should also be studied carefully to determine what is required to provide people with adequate water service. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) should continue to provide electricity. All other complementary power alternatives, such as the two existing co-generation plants, have Fas Alzamoras blessing as long as the electricity provided is offered through Prepas grid.
On the other hand, the privatized penal system, which he does not include among the essential services that should come under the immediate attention of the Special Independent Auditor, could remain in the private sector. "If the principal objective, the rehabilitation of the incarcerated, is being addressed, and those serving time do not have their civil rights curtailed, I see no problem in having the penal system remain in private hands."
Fas Alzamora, who, during his 24 years in the Senate has earned a reputation for having a mind of his own while a party loyalist, said he would discuss his views with Calderon. The agenda for this meeting will also include Calderons legislation wish list for the first 100 days of her administration. Fas Alzamora has his own legislation plan, which basically includes re-filing all the major bills submitted by minority members of the legislature during the past eight years which were not approved by the Rossello administration.
Since economic development is such a key issue, Fas Alzamora has broken down the broad Senate committee that dealt with all areas of economic development into more targeted committees that will study specific areas.
For example, Senate committees will monitor industrial development & the cooperative movement, banking & consumer affairs, commerce & technological development (the latter being a totally new area, never having been part of any committees analysis), and the development of the western region.
Fas Alzamora, a native of Cabo Rojo who maintains his residence there and commutes daily to San Juan, feels very strongly about the neglect of western Puerto Rico. "Along with the central mountain region, the western area has suffered the most as a result of manufacturing plant closings, especially the apparel sector, since the phase-out of Section 936 [of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code]."
Another committee, which handles international and federal affairs, is presided over by the former head of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Washington, D.C., newly elected San Juan Sen. Jose Ortiz Daliot. "I think Puerto Rico should become a member of international organizations and that relations with other countries should be strengthened. I also favor enhancing the governments offices abroad and not merely using them to promote tourism."
Fas Alzamora also plans to be visible in Washington. He intends to let the Beltway powers know what issues are important to Puerto Rico. Once he knocked on Capitol Hill doors, meeting with former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Bill Archer (R-TX) as minority leader, to back Rossellos attempts to make the Section 30A wage credit permanent. Now, he will do so as Senate president.
Following his predecessor, former Senate President Charlie Rodriguez, Fas Alzamora will introduce a concurrent resolution in the Senate requesting amendments to federal laws affecting the island. "Presenting Congress with a concurrent resolution has considerable weight. The New Progressive Party (NPP) used it effectively to promote statehood, such as the one that was included in the congressional record and was used to endorse the Young bill."
Fas Alzamora referred to the bill filed by Republican Alaska Rep. Don Young, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives by one vote but never made it to the U.S. Senate. The bill promoted a congressionally supervised plebiscite in Puerto Rico.
Making 30A permanent, or even lobbying for a federal tax credit similar to Section 936, is high on Fas Alzamoras Washington agenda. "I do not think its entirely impossible to get Congress to pass a bill giving us federal tax credits equivalent to Section 936. After all, there will be a new Congress and people with different mentalities have come in, so if we try hard enough we may get some good federal incentives."
Fas Alzamora is keen on eliminating or amending the cabotage rules contained in the Jones Act (the Merchant Marine Act of 1920). The federal law regulating U.S. coastal traffic mandates that all goods coming to Puerto Rico must be brought in aboard U.S. built, owned, and operated ships. As an island forced to use the most expensive merchant marine, Puerto Ricos costs for goods are increased dramatically.
Fas Alzamora, who is eager to work closely with Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vila, said he will back him in his efforts to try to eliminate the Jones Act. "Personally and contrary to the Rossello administration, which conditioned Puerto Ricos exclusion from the Jones Act only if the eastern seaboard states were also excluded, I would eliminate this condition. If other states are also excluded, fine, but we have to concentrate our fight on Puerto Ricos exclusion."
One stateside area of concern for Fas Alzamora will be to preserve and increase the official relationship with the Puerto Rican stateside communities. "They should not feel apart from island residents. Instead, they should be made to feel that we are all one people, separated only geographically." He sees great potential in getting Puerto Ricans in the States more involved in politics on the mainland.
"Puerto Ricans on the mainland dont participate very actively in U.S. politics because they maintain their emotional links to the island. Also statesiders themselves dont participate as actively in their local politics as we do in Puerto Rico." He added that if closer ties are established with Puerto Rican communities in the States and they come to understand island politics better, they could be a big help in promoting the islands causes in Washington. "They could exert very effective pressure on their congressmen and help us on issues like 936 and the Jones Act."
The language issue
One of Fas Alzamoras initiatives, to study the reinstatement of Spanish as the islands official language, has come under fire and is being criticized by the NPP minority as possibly affecting the islands business climate.
Fas Alzamora says the issue should not become a political one but be discussed on its linguistic merits. His main objection to the law passed by the Rossello administration is that it says either language, English or Spanish, can be used officially indistinctly.
"The vernacular is Spanish. At least 90% of our population does not speak English. Placing both English and Spanish as official languages, to be used indistinctly, does not reflect our reality." He added that under the current law, if a person goes to a government agency, he or she could be asked to bring all required documents in English.
"If the person doesnt speak English, this could have adverse results. Frankly, I have found it ridiculous when some senators have spoken for the record, on the floor, in English. Some cant even speak English well and some statehooder colleagues dont understand what is being discussed."
Fas Alzamora considers English a universal language, the way Latin was at the time of the Roman Empire. He added that English should be considered in Puerto Rico as an alternative. While both languages should be official languages of Puerto Rico, Spanish should be the language used for all government transactions, except in special cases where a non-Spanish speaking person requires documents in English, he said. Because he wants the issue dealt with from a purely linguistic point of view, he proposes that a committee of language experts study the matter and offer recommendations.
When asked why he would get into this political diatribe when there are other more crucial issues that should demand the attention of the public, Fas Alzamora said, "I did not bring up the issue, the press did. But, one must be consistent in life and I have always said that when the PDP regained power, the language issue should be addressed. For the NPP, having English as an official language is a political issue because they want to project the island as totally bilingual to benefit the statehood cause."
Fas Alzamora also gave his opinion on many other projects and issues:
He fully backs Ponce Mayor Rafael Cordero who wants the initial phase of the port to be in Ponce. "We should follow the Ernst G. Frankel study [commissioned by the Rossello administration to decide if the port was economically feasible] which says the initial phase could be done in Ponce. We have to ensure the municipality has all the mechanisms, including financial, to make this a reality."
Paradores, or country inns, need help, especially in promotion. Too much emphasis was given to promote big hotels and attract tourists with big budgets from the eastern region of the U.S. mainland. "A very small portion of the Tourism Co.s promotional budget was given to the paradores program. We need to entice tourists to come to the inns during winter, which is the off season for locals who book for the summer." Eco-tourism, which attracts budget travelers seeking natural sea and mountain settings, should be promoted. "Im convinced tourism figures were exaggerated and we should be seeking other markets looking for less expensive hotels."
The Senate president does not favor an increase in taxes. "We will have to analyze the governments fiscal situation closely, but we should do everything possible to relieve taxpayers and increasing taxes would be a set back." He praised the economic relief brought by the Rossello administrations policy of lowering taxes. "Justice was done to the middle class, who bears the brunt of the tax burden."
Fas Alzamora believes agriculture has been neglected and he will propose massive help. He favors more intensive use of agricultural land instead of selling it for housing developments. Agricultural incentives are a must, as is establishing public policy that the island become as self-sufficient as possible. Some sectors, such as exotic plants and tropical fruits, should be promoted for exports. Special help should be given to coffee growers and sugar cane planters. Even a strong sector, like dairy farms, should be further strengthened. All chicken growers should be helped and favoritism avoided. Small vegetable gardens should again be promoted.
"In the face of Mercosur, the European Union and all the other trade blocs and, having lost our once exclusive market relationship with the U.S., Puerto Rico should become part of the globalization effort." He added that the pact with the U.S. should be more balanced so that the island can become more self sufficient and less dependent on the States, which would be good for both sides and fits well with the globalization trend.
He is emphatic that the U.S. Navy should abandon its military practices on the small island municipality off Puerto Ricos northeastern coast. He considers it immoral that the Navy has set a dateNovember--for the referendum to be held in Vieques on whether the Navy should abandon the municipality. "The PDP will hold a referendum in two months but the real referendum was held Nov. 7 [when the general elections were held] and the mandate was clear, the Navy must stop military practices with ammunition immediately." He does not consider it necessary to pass legislation to uphold the environmental laws, which the Navy is allegedly violating, but said if this gives Calderon more weight before the federal government, such legislation will be approved.
The first step for the issue of the islands political status must be to create a dialogue committee, which will decide what is the best vehicle for the people to determine what political status they want. The status determination process could be a Constituent Assembly, a referendum, or a plebiscite. If the dialogue committee cannot achieve a consensus on which process should be used, then other mechanisms must be found.
"The umbrellas created more bureaucracy and except for a couple, such as the Security and Public Safety Commission, which performed well, they are incompatible with government decentralization which was their goal." On the issue of clean government, Fas said, "I will be rigorous and enforce all codes but from what I know, having worked for the past two years with each of the PDPs candidates, we will have a very honest Senate. In 24 years in the Senate, I have never had any corruption filings against me."
One issue Fas Alzamora was very emphatic about was that the PDP and Calderon made many campaign promises based on the core principle of social justice, which is the essence of the PDP. "Given the governments fiscal situation, which has come to light during the transition meetings, these campaign promises could face problems in being met. We made the offers based on what Rossello presented in his annual budget meetings before the Legislature, in what his Cabinet members told us when we had hearings and what appeared in the press. Now, the transition meetings reveal another picture."
He added that the Rossello administration boasted it had created more public works with a smaller budget, but "what really happened was that they took money from one agency and passed it on to another. This created a fiscal chaos. "
At the end of his first four-year term as Senate president, Fas Alzamora wants to be viewed as having presided over a peoples Senate. "I want to erase the tarnished image of corruption for that of an honest, hard working Senate. We must also comply with what we promised the people, to guide the status process."
||Legislation On The Way
Among the first bills to be introduced by Senate President Antonio J. Fas Alzamora will be those he or his colleagues filed over the last eight years as minority members of the legislature. Practically all were rejected by the New Progressive Party majority. Now that the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) has control over both chambers of the legislative assembly, Fas Alzamora anticipates the PDP majority will approve the bills.
Two bills filed October 1997 to benefit the tuna industry and improve its competitiveness to help preserve thousands of jobs in Mayaguez are among those to be reintroduced. Senate Project 826, filed by Fas Alzamora and the late Sen.. Jorge Alberto Ramos Comas, proposed to give total tax exemption on the fuel oil used by the boilers processing the tuna. The bill states that, given the precarious state of the local tuna industry and its importance to the whole western region, and the fact the tuna industry had no special incentives, tax exemption should be given to all fuel used in plant boilers.
Senate Project 827 seeks a 10-year energy credit of 20% for the first two years and 15% for the following eight years for the packing tuna plants
Five bills, filed between 1997 and 1999, all aim at eliminating the lack of water or poor water service prevalent throughout the island. Senate Resolution 317, filed April 3, 1997 asked for an investigation of the closing of so many Puerto Rico Sewer & Aqueduct Authority (Prasa) commercial offices and the problems encountered by clients who were once served by those offices.
Two resolutions filed May 30, 1997, numbered 579 and 580, asked for an in-depth analysis of Prasas strategies to solve the lack of water and another asked for a study to determine if a desalination pilot project to complement Prasas efforts was feasible.
On March 12, 1998, Senate Resolution 1348 was filed seeking an investigation of the water crisis in the western region. On February 23, 1999, Senate Resolution 2200 asked that a special Senate commission be created to constantly monitor Prasa and its plans to improve water availability and the agencys precarious fiscal situation.
Another bill, Senate Project 193, March 7, 1997, is aimed at helping small, family businesses by lending them money, counseling or whatever else is necessary to make these under-$100,000 companies successful.
Political Bug Bit New Senate President Early
Antonio J. Fas Alzamora was born Nov. 16, 1948 in Cabo Rojo. Tony, as everyone who knows him calls the new Senate president, went to school in Mayaguez, attending Academia Inmaculada Concepcion. After graduating in 1966 he enrolled at the Mayaguez campus of the University of Puerto Rico where he obtained a bachelors of science degree. In 1970, Fas Alzamora went to Ponce to attend the Pontifical Catholic University where he obtained his law degree in 1972. A year later, he passed the bar exams and opened his law office in his home town.
The political bug bit Fas Alzamora in 1967 while listening to the speeches of the late Gov. Luis Muñoz Marin. A plebiscite was being held that year and the founder of the commonwealth status gave speeches throughout the island defending the commonwealth formula. The 19-year-old college student was profoundly impressed
by the founder of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) and started attending PDP
meetings. In 1972 he did volunteer work for the party and two years later was elected vice president of the PDP in Cabo Rojo.
In 1976, Fas Alzamora was elected to the House of Representatives for District 20. And in 1980, he made a successful bid for the Senate, representing the Mayaguez-Aguadilla District. He served four consecutive terms for that senatorial district until 1996, when, for his fifth term, he was elected to a Senate at-large seat.
From 1985-89 he was designated PDP president by former Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon, while at the same time serving as senator. Among the many distinctions Fas Alzamora has received was being selected twice, in 1983 and in 1988, among the islands most distinguished young men by the Puerto Rico Junior Chamber (Jaycees).
Fas Alzamora has always been known for his sports advocacy, supporting all sports through legislation. In 1989, the International Olympic Committee awarded him a medal in recognition of his dedication to all sports. In 1992, the local Olympic Committee also awarded him a medal for his sports sponsorship.
Fas Alzamora is married to Ileana Pacheco Morales and they have three children, Ileana Isabel, an electrical engineer at age 27, university students Antonio Juan, 25, and Marilea, 21.