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Orlando Sentinel

Calderon Fights For Trade Status

By Iván Román | San Juan Bureau

December 16, 2001
Copyright © 2001
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Selling milk and coffee to the Dominican Republic is fine with Gov. Sila Calderon's critics.

After all, more trade with the rest of the Caribbean is sorely needed. But when Dominican President Hipolito Mejia recently gave Calderon his country's highest honor for heads of state -- recognition also given to the top leaders of Chile, Nicaragua and Venezuela -- the governor's opponents went into a tizzy.

All this would seem trivial if it weren't part of a much deeper issue. Like other Popular Democratic Party administrations, the government has made a big push to establish and strengthen relations with regional and international organizations -- which ironically highlights the weaknesses and contradictions of the current political status that its leaders purport to defend.

In the commonwealth, established in 1952, Puerto Rico has fiscal autonomy, but the United States has jurisdiction over matters such as foreign affairs, trade and immigration. In this new world where regional cooperation and the globalization of free trade is paramount, Puerto Rico is pushing to see how far it can go without getting a spanking, so to speak.

"I think it's a positive thing for the government, but the pathetic thing is that it happens within the political limits we have," pro-independence Sen. Fernando Martin said. "We should be more aggressive in this and try to develop more than just symbolic agreements."

The quick work done so far on this month's trade, cultural, commercial and agricultural agreement with the Dominican Republic indicates that it will be more than symbolic. But the laundry list of ideas and plans was approved beforehand by U.S. officials. Other efforts so far have not gone so smoothly.

Calderon's pitch to 300 politicians and businesspeople in Miami recently about the island being a bridge to the U.S. market carried its own style. Unlike her predecessor, Pedro Rossello, who took every chance to highlight statehood as a main goal, she reaffirmed Puerto Rico's cultural and historic affinity with Spain and Latin America.

Rocky talks are under way to replace the island's foreign-business and promotions offices with delegations that answer directly to the local State Department to formally represent Puerto Rico. Opposition leaders call it a disguised attempt to create "little embassies" that would separate Puerto Rico from the United States even more.

Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado was a special guest at the Summit of the Association of Caribbean States in Venezuela last week. Puerto Rico asked to be a member of the association, but the federal State Department considers it inappropriate because it could conflict with U.S. interests in the area.

Pro-statehood activists consider this and other actions as more of Calderon's "separatist policies" that will push the island further from statehood if not stopped now. "The current government's moves to be looking to join international organizations are inconsistent with the U.S. policies," said Carlos Pesquera, president of the New Progressive Party. "It's an action that hurts our relationship with the United States."

Mercado answered that he is sorry that Pesquera "doesn't know the difference between walking upright or on your knees" and that every agreement benefiting tourism, commerce and culture that comes as a result of regional integration will be done within the constitutional framework of the United States and Puerto Rico.

Negotiations about membership in the association are not over, he said, but with the heated rhetoric right now, he is going to wait for things to cool down.

"We keep the dialogue going; it's still open," Mercado said. "We have good communication with the federal State Department, and at the right moment I'm sure we'll get the OK from the United States."

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