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PUERTO RICO REPORT
Statehood Party Falls On Hard Times
by Robert Becker
April 6, 2001
I recently asked a veteran New Progressive Party activist how things were going with the party.
"What party?" he asked plaintively.
These are hard times for statehooders in Puerto Rico. After riding high on a wave of near-invincibility for eight years, the once-mighty NPP is in bad shape. Dealt a crushing loss in the 2000 elections by Sila Calderón and her revived Popular Democratic Party, the NPP is adrift, leader less, consumed by internal squabbling, beset and bedeviled by PDP-led corruption investigations, and powerless to do anything but watch from the sidelines in San Juan and in Washington, D.C.
The NPP is living proof about the fleeting nature of power.
The party s having fallen on hard times should not be a surprise to anyone. Since 1968, with the NPPs rise under Luis A. Ferré, power in Puerto Rico has been traded back and forth between the PDP and NPP. The changes have followed cyclical patterns, with the Puerto Rican Independence Party often tipping the balance of power.
The NPPs November loss seems to have knocked the NPP loose from its moorings. Pro-statehood mayors, legislators and municipal assembly members by the dozens were sent packing. That carnage had hardly abated when party president Carlos Pesquera, still smarting over his gubernatorial defeat at Calderóns hands, resigned in pique after the partys Old Guard, led by House Speaker Edison Misla Aldarondo, refused to step aside in favor of fresh blood.
The NPPs true power, Gov. Pedro Rosselló, bolted the island on Jan. 3. Rosselló told anyone who was listening he was through with politics. He left Calderóns swearing in ceremony before it was over and raced to the airport to catch a plane for Boston, where he is now ensconced at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Then the real fun began. A former NPP legislator, the youthful Leo Díaz, was installed as party president. Díaz at best was a seat-warmer, a compromise candidate whose chief attribute was that he had no enemies. Newly-elected San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini kept his distance, no doubt waiting for his gubernatorial opportunity in 2004.
Carlos Romero Barceló, the defeated resident commissioner incumbent and now a party patriarch, also has moved to a behind the scenes role, where he is promoting the career of his daughter Melinda, a legislator and up-and-coming NPP figure.
In this political vacuum, internal warfare has broken out, centered around the figure of NPP Vice President Norma Burgos, the former Secretary of State and once of of Rossellós closest political associates. Burgos, who got the NPPs largest vote total as a Senate at-large candidate, should have been regarded as one of the partys hopes for the future. The partys problem with her is that she thinks, talks and acts like a hybrid commonwealth and independence supporter. She has opposed her party on the Clinton-Rosselló deal on Vieques, and she has also opposed the privatization of government corporations, a key plank in the PDPs electoral platform. Burgos also enraged NPP leaders with her campaign literature instructing voters how to mark a split ballot -- another blow against party orthodoxy and discipline. Finally, and most critically, Burgos called for the ouster of last-minute Planning Board appointees Rosselló had made. Burgos said that Rosselló's 11th hour appointments were " immoral," an accusation which triggered immediate counter-charges she was acting on behalf of Calderón.
Burgos has reacted with defiance, even engaging in a nasty public argument with Díaz at a NPP board meeting. It has made her a pariah, and the party is pressuring her to step down from the vice presidency and is trying to strip her of key committee assignments in the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Kenneth McClintock and others have questioned Burgos loyalty, saying they dont trust her.
This very public nastiness has created an image of the NPP as weak, wrought with internal divisions and as a spent force with no clout in the political arena. In Washington, D.C., Calderón has countered NPP influence with veteran Republican lobbyist Charlie Black and she announced she will hire Henry Kissinger to design an economic recovery model for Puerto Rico.
All this has set PDP supporters to crowing with joy. They have short memories. In early 1993, the PDP found itself in similar straits. An up-and-coming Rosselló had soundly thrashed PDP gubernatorial candidate Victoria Munoz Mendoza, the statehooders had gained a huge majority of the Legislature and city halls, and the populares were reeling with one corruption scandal after another. The once-mighty PDP had, at that moment, seemed in danger of becoming politically irrelevant. Likewise, the statehooders can be forgiven for lacking, at the moment, a certain amount of perspective.
Robert Becker, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: email@example.com