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Discontent Rumbles Through The Popular Democratic Party

by Robert Becker

AUGUST 17, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The Popular Democratic Party has always been a big tent under which sheltered a grab bag of personalities and ideologies. Some of them were conservative, pro-business, and above all pro-American. The tent also sheltered populares who were liberal-to-socialist, who were pro-independence at heart, and who wanted to create as much distance between Puerto Rico and the United States as possible.

The distance between the two camps has dramatically widened in recent months, under the strain of the Vieques issue and Puerto Rico’s never-ending status debate. These days, the PDP unity patched together for the 2000 elections seems to be tearing at the seams.

Gov. Sila Calderón now faces dissension from both the left and right wings of her party.

Calderón’s most persistent critic has been Rep. Jorge de Castro Font, a veteran legislator whose grandfather, Jorge Font Saldaña, was one of the founders of the PDP. Long considered a maverick, De Castro is unabashedly pro-United States, a pro-business conservative, and unlike most of his PDP colleagues, a Republican.

De Castro has attracted a core of supporters in the House over the years, and with Calderón’s election he made a bid to be named Speaker of the House. Calderón, however, at the last moment snatched away De Castro’s apparent ascension and engineered the installation as Speaker Carlos Vizcarrondo, a left-leaning member of the PDP’s autonomist wing.

His ambitions thwarted, De Castro has kept up a drumbeat of criticism against Calderón for her Vieques stand and against the party’s anti-American, leftward drift. He infuriated the party leadership by attending July 4 festivities organized by Jorge Santini, the New Progressive Party mayor of San Juan.

De Castro went further by campaigning on Vieques for the Navy in the July 29 referendum on the island.

Calderón had had enough. At a meeting of the PDP’s Board on Aug. 9, the party chieftains suspended De Castro from the party, pending a later vote to drum him out completely.

With De Castro firing from the right, Calderón is also experiencing embarrassing eruptions of nationalist fervor from her left. There, the sharpest thorn in her side has been Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora, one of the PDP’s most obdurate autonomists. A Fas ally, Sen. Margarita Ostolaza, used her position as chairwoman of the Committee on Education, Science and Culture to hold hearings on the official language issue, one of the most divisive in Puerto Rico.

For most of the century since the U.S. acquisition of Puerto Rico in 1898, Spanish and English have been the official languages of Puerto Rico. In her committee hearings, Ostolaza heard from a parade of linguistic experts, most of whom pronounced the wholly unsurprising observation that Spanish was the primary language of Puerto Rico.

Armed with this finding, Fas and Ostolaza announced that they would sponsor legislation to remove English as one of of Puerto Rico’s official languages, and elevate Spanish to constitutionally protected status. The last thing Calderón needs at this juncture is more anti-American signals being sent out of Puerto Rico. She took the unusual step of issuing a press release on a Sunday explicitly rejecting Fas’s measure. Ostolaza quickly backed off, but Fas said he would press ahead with the measure in the next Senate session. Fas has also given Calderón a case of political heartburn over his loud insistence that the Puerto Rico’s water supply system be wrested from the private sector and returned to government control. Calderón’s response was to announce the agency’s management contract would be put out for private bids.

Apart from ideological issues, other PDP members are grousing about Calderón’ s high-handed governing style. For one, she had not convened the PDP board during her first eight months in office until the Aug. 9 meeting to expel De Castro Font.

Rep. Roberto Cruz complained that Calderón was focusing solely on Vieques to the detriment of other issues, and that La Fortaleza was ignoring pleas from legislators for help on other issues. He predicted Calderón would be a one-term governor unless the situation improved.

Sen. José Ortiz Daliot, who represents San Juan, also took a swipe at the "lack of efficiency and response" from Calderón’s administration. And the chairman of the House Health Committee, Rafael Garcia, complained that executive agency officials failed to show up for hearings, which delays progress on legislation.

Some of the sniping can be attributed to the inevitable shake-out in the transition to a new governor. But some of it is rooted in deep-seated unease with Calderón’s Vieques policy and her autocratic governing style. As Calderón is unlikely to change, her party headaches will grow more numerous.

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:

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