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Squabbling Consumes Puerto Rico's Major Parties

by Robert Becker

AUGUST 31, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

On Aug. 30, Rubén Berríos, the president of Puerto Rico’s quixotic Puerto Rican Independence Party, was released from jail to a hero’s welcome from supporters of his tiny party. At least Berríos, who has just completed a four-month jail term for trespassing on the Vieques firing range, could look forward to leading a united party. Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood and pro-commonwealth parties are, in marked contrast, weakened and drifting, beset by leadership struggles and deep ideological divisions.

Some 3,000 hard core supporters of the New Progressive Party huddled in a weekend conclave in the resort town of Dorado and decided to hold a party primary in November to settle the nagging leadership issue which has split the party into rival factions. At the head of one faction is Carlos I. Pesquera, the bespectacled engineer who headed the party’s losing ticket in 2000. Pesquera enjoys the support of the Mayors Federation, an important bloc of grass-roots elected officials who control thousands of patronage jobs and contracts island wide.

At the head of a second NPP faction is San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini, an emerging power in the party who was one of the few bright spots in the elections debacle. As the chief elected official of the largest city in Puerto Rico Santini can command considerable media attention, and he has built a powerful political machine with deep roots in every barrio and gated community in the city. Santini, a former senator from San Juan, is supported by many of his former legislative colleagues. Santini appeared to move toward defusing the tensions with his announcement Aug. 29 that he would seek a party vice presidency, while Pesquera the same day officially threw his hat in the ring for the party presidency and the 2004 governorship. Santini, however, pointedly did not rule out running for governor in 2004, declaring that it was premature to talk about individual candidacies.

The wild card in the mix is the current party president, Leo Díaz, a former legislator who was installed as a seat warmer until the succession question was resolved. Díaz, however, has impressed with his hard work and ability to quickly learn the political ropes. He has not yet declared his intentions for the primary.

The jockeying has triggered no small amount of party infighting. Pesquera has been criticized by former Gov. Carlos Romero Barceló for disappearing after the elections loss, only to reemerge eight months later to stake a leadership claim. Apart from Santini, there also is jockeying for the two NPP vice president slots. Contenders include Sen. Miriam Ramírez de Ferrer, a fervent statehood activist who believes the party has strayed from its ideological purpose; Alternate Minority Rep. Iris Miriam Ruiz and Sen. Lucy Arce, who is aligned with Pesquera.

Unlike the statehooders, the rival Popular Democratic Party has an undisputed leader in Gov. Sila M. Calderón. Her problem is reining in the often fractious membership to concentrate on achievement of the party’s economic development goals. With the Vieques issue hanging like a dead weight albatross around her neck, the last thing Calderón needs is for her government to engage in any additional anti-American, quasi-socialist posturing, which is precisely what some PDP leaders are hell bent on doing.

Calderón’s biggest problem is Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora, a hardcore pro-autonomist who continues to push for enactment of a Spanish-only law in Puerto Rico. Fas, a curious throwback who seems enthralled with outdated concepts of big government and state ownership, declared recently that he wanted to amend Puerto Rico’s constitution to make Spanish the sole official language of Puerto Rico.

Fas also wants to return control of the beleaguered Aqueduct and Sewer Authority to government control, bucking a privatization trend that is dominant in most governments around the world -- the Puerto Rico Senate being a notable exception.

For months, PDP legislators have been grumbling that Calderón was ignoring them.

Francisco Zayas Seijo, chairman of the House Finance committee, openly criticized Calderón’s administration for being out of touch with legislators and for vetoing 45 bills already this year.

Executive branch hostilities have been erupting as well. Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado has been pushing for the establishment of consulate-like offices around the world to represent Puerto Rico on education, culture, technology and other issues. That has provoked the ire of Calderón’s powerful Secretary of Economic Development and Commerce, Ramón Cantero Frau, who attacked his proposal for being characteristic of sovereign nations, rather than of commonwealth.

No wonder Berríos was smiling as he was sprung from jail.

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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