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Orlando Sentinel

NPP Clash May Cause Party Split

By Iván Román

September 2, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The wound from the New Progressive Party's crushing defeat at the polls last November kept bleeding so much that party President Leo Díaz decided to put disinfectant on it to heal it.

But his actions only made things worse. The sting made many people scream. And it appears as if they may now have forced the pro-statehood party too early into an inevitable showdown to see who should be the boss.

Díaz, who last April took the reins of a party full of conflicts, spent weeks urging leaders to stop internal spats over candidacies for an election that is still more than three years away.

But then Carlos Pesquera, the party's gubernatorial candidate defeated in November, reappeared at a pro-statehood rally July 27 to a rousing "spontaneous" welcome orchestrated by some influential NPP mayors and others who back him.

Díaz was fed up. In remarks that left some speechless and others cheering, he told more than 3,000 delegates at an NPP assembly last Sunday that he refused to be a "decorative president." He called for party members, not the NPP's governing board, to choose the president and two vice presidents in a primary Nov. 18.

As he scolded some of the leaders flanking him on the stage, he revealed that some party activists didn't want to donate money to avoid getting in trouble with competing factions. "It's very easy to ask me to stay in the presidency but keep my hands and feet tied. Even though I don't have aspirations for the 2004 ballot, some are afraid I'll do a good job and people will ask me to run," Díaz said. "What I want is for all those who want to be in the party to roll up their sleeves and get to work," he said.

That was a direct jibe at Pesquera, who quit the presidency after he lost to the party's "old guard" earlier this year in his failed attempt to keep Rep. Edison Misla Aldarondo from being the minority whip in the House of Representatives.

To Pesquera backers, Díaz's speech went down like a pint of castor oil. Guaynabo Mayor Hector O'Neill called Díaz a liar because Díaz supposedly told him that he would propose a primary because personal reasons were forcing him to step down.

He accused Díaz of cornering Pesquera into a premature decision and of showing his true intentions of wanting to run for governor himself. Díaz, O'Neill said, was doing the bidding of the party's "old guard" headed by former Gov. Carlos Romero Barceló.

"Now this is just every man for himself. For me this party is worth more broken than badly patched up," O'Neill said, preferring an all-out battle to bring "new faces" to the fore than a slate proposed by the old guard to put forth the image of a unity that doesn't exist.

Díaz shot back that the primaries are aimed at opening doors, not closing them. But the move may have backfired, and part of O'Neill's fears may be coming true. Pesquera announced he will run for NPP president now and for governor in 2004. That basically knocks Díaz out of the picture and gives the governing Popular Democratic Party a target starting today.

But San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini, flanked by many of the "old guard" figures, announced he's running for one of the vice president positions, virtually blocking out any chance of Pesquera's preferred people in that post. Santini also left open the possibility of a primary challenge to Pesquera in 2003 to be the NPP's gubernatorial candidate.

"Everything I warned people about months ago has now come to pass," NPP Sen. Sergio Peña Clos said. "This is just a really big mistake."

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