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At Odds: The Capitol vs. La Fortaleza

By John Marino

November 9, 2001
Copyright © 2001
PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

When Sila Calderón was elected governor last year, she mobilized a solid majority of the Popular Democratic Party faithful (not to mention a good number of voters from outside party ranks) in nailing down her victory.

But after one year in power, keeping the party together could be proving more difficult, with the threat of a face-off between the Calderón administration and the PDP-controlled Legislature looming.

Prodded by Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora, the Legislature will hold hearings on a bill to buy a majority stake in Puerto Rico Telephone, despite pronouncements by Calderón and several of her cabinet members that it won't happen. House Speaker Carlos Vizcarrando, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with his own proposal to explore the idea of the commonwealth government becoming its own insurer behind the Health Reform started under the Rosselló administration. This plan, aimed at lowering costs, was also dismissed as unworkable by the administration.

The gathering storm may yet dissipate, as Calderón has already established a history of being able to stare down opposition within the party. But the rhetoric has never been hotter before with Fas and Vizcarrando demanding the same respect for their legislative proposals that La Fortaleza initiatives are given in the House and Senate.

Even before her election, Calderón had to overcome the rebuff to her campaign by former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón, who not only made no public appearances with Calderón, but made sure at the height of the governor's race that his photograph got splashed across the front pages of island newspapers with New Progressive Party candidate Carlos Pesquera and other NPP stalwarts, like Luis A. Ferré, during a Senate homage in his honor. The internal feud stemmed from the bid of the former governor's son, Jose Alfredo Hernández Mayoral, in a primary against resident commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, whom Calderón openly supported for the post. But the victories of Acevedo Vilá and Calderón herself served to vindicate her as the power in the PDP and strengthened her position.

Almost since taking office, however, Calderón has called on the Legislature to hold off on their own approaches to significant policy issues to "give the administration space" to implement its strategy. One early example of this was Calderón's quashing of a proposal by freshman Rep. Charlie Hernandez of Mayaguez to overturn the local law enabling the Navy referendum on Vieques. But it wasn't just up and coming politicians that Calderón put down. She also made clear that veteran senator Fas Alzamora's call to amend the Constitution in order to "permanently" make Spanish the sole official language of Puerto Rico was "not a priority."

The message now coming out of the Capitol is that "we're not going to take it anymore." Vizcarrando said that just as the Legislature gives consideration to La Fortaleza's bills, the administration should treat with respect measures originated by the PDP legislative delegations.

So far, the Legislature has fast-tracked priority legislative measures from La Fortaleza, often to the criticism that not enough time was being given to public hearings on the bills. Even as lawmakers sniped about the quality of the legislation from La Fortaleza, the bills were quickly passed. Such was the case with Calderon’s "Special Communities" program to attack poverty, as well the noise bill aimed at banning Navy ship-to-shore shelling off Vieques.

Now Vizcarrando and Fas Alzamora are asking for similar treatment, and Calderón, who is always calling for a "consensus" on issues, would no doubt love to please the Senate and House leaders.

The problem is that their legislative proposals are so far removed from Calderón's campaign platform and political philosophy that she cannot support them.

While Calderón criticized the terms of the PRT sale under the Rosselló administration, she is not philosophically opposed to privatization. Fas Alzamora, who is pushing his PRT plan because he believes "government should keep control of essential services," appears to be.

The Senate president, and other lawmakers, have called on Calderón to take back control of the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority as a way to overcome the shoddy service and financial problems of the water utility. But Calderón is inviting outside bidders, including the current operator, to submit new administrative proposals to boost quality.

Differences go well beyond privatization. While Calderón has been criticized for her tough stance on Vieques, she has doused the flames of other proposals by PDP members she saw as provocative. She is currently against a proposal by Vizcarrando, which is expected to be voted on tonight (Thursday, Nov.8 ), to amend the local law enabling a federal Vieques referendum so that it is better "harmonized" with federal legislation on the matter.

Fas Alzamora’s PRT proposal is not just about business philosophy. There is a status message in wanting to reclaim national patrimony, and it dovetails with his earlier proposal to return Spanish to Puerto Rico’s sole official language.

This is the real problem for the governor and the PDP. The divergence of opinion within the party is not just about liberal or conservative politics, but about the key idea around which the party was born: status.

Both Vizcarrando and Fas Alzamora are from the autonomist branch of the PDP, believing in the development of a true free associated state.

Calderón is much more conservative, and is trying her best not to do much with commonwealth status, lest its colonial roots be exposed.

That issue on how to proceed on status will be the permanent background to the continuing squabbling expected between La Fortaleza and the Capitol.

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