One Year Of Sila

by John Marino

December 28, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOOne year after taking office, the administration of Gov. Sila Calderón is still a work in progress.

This has as much to do with Calderón's micro-management approach to governing as it does with the outside events buffeting Puerto Rico.

The island's first woman to hold the office of governor, Calderón took her time naming a Cabinet, brushing off criticism at the slowness of the process by saying she wanted to make sure to get the right people in the jobs.

But that has not stopped her from making adjustments. As recently as this month, she replaced the heads of the Environmental Quality Board and the State Emergency Management Agency.

Other recent major shake-ups have included a new police superintendent and a new head of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources.

This has hurt the governor, giving the appearance of a "government by improvisation," to borrow a phrase from her political opponents. The fact that one of these unfilled jobs was a full-time press secretary for much of her first year only added to the appearance of chaos that the administration put forward.

Calderón also spent enormous energies during the first half year of her administration on the Vieques issue, pressuring for a quick Navy withdrawal on the public relations, political, legal and health and environmental fronts.

While criticized as a waste of money, her convocation of a Vieques referendum served a real purpose - telling the world how the residents of Vieques truly felt about the Navy. This undercut the arguments of those who said the protests were staged by outside agitators and that most Vieques residents really appreciated their mighty neighbor.

But while Calderón appeared for a time to push Vieques into an issue for national debate, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks turned it into a futile effort. Now, the earliest possible date for a Navy withdrawal is May 1, 2003, and with no guarantees other than the word of the president.

And despite her efforts, the "peace for Vieques" movement appears mostly disillusioned by her handling of the issue. This week she angered Vieques leaders again by saying she would not lessen the additional police presence on Vieques despite the Congressional gutting of the Rosselló-Clinton accord which called on the commonwealth to protect the perimeter of the Navy's Camp García.

The other big issue in her victorious gubernatorial campaign was public corruption, and her administration has shown itself ready to attack the problem, with the local Justice Department going after alleged crooks of all political stripes.

But here too, she has suffered setbacks, with a federal court ruling finding that her Blue Ribbon Commission violated the due process rights of some targets of its investigation. If such a finding winds up protecting some of those targeted from future prosecution, it would have disastrous results, undercutting the zeal with which the administration has pledged to wipe out corruption.

Calderón took over La Fortaleza at a time when the national and local economies were starting to cool off, and a series of plant closings were announced from the end of 2000 through the first six months of 2001.

As a result she has taken a lot of flak over the economy. But to her credit, Calderón, known as a tough business administrator, has also taken action.

She embarked on a new strategy - amendments to Section 956 - to win new federal industrial lures for businesses to set up in Puerto Rico. She also signed into law a series of new local incentives, which range from preferential utility rates to a zero tax rate for "strategic" businesses opening in Puerto Rico that could generate significant economic activity.

She has also pledged to steam ahead with a transshipment port under discussion for years that could offer Puerto Rico a whole new avenue of economic activity.

While she still suffers from criticism that she is not doing enough on this front - a common refrain in Puerto Rico politics - environmentalists horrified over sweeping revisions of all regulations that affect business by every government agency think otherwise.

Calderón also has put forward certain pet projects, such as a Special Communities office that will oversee spending of $100 million over two years on the island's poorest communities. Another program, with added expenditures to government coffers, extends hours at government agencies dealing with the public. The success or failure of such initiatives will go a long way towards defining the Calderón administration.

But she has backed off from all status related issues - a strategy that can only last until next summer, when commonwealth has its 50 year birthday and a promised committee of all political persuasions is set to begin discussions on how best to resolve the island's status dilemma.

Calderón has already battled with Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora and House Speaker Carlos Vizcarrando and other elements within the PDP over matters related to privatization, making Spanish the official language and other issues. But the big battle with the legislative leaders and other members of the PDP's autonomous wing who support free association with the United States could come this summer when status discussions are slated to begin.

Calderón, who insists that commonwealth is a "bilateral pact" between the United States and Puerto Rico, has real differences with the autonomous wing over where Puerto Rico should go on the status front. But she won't be able to put off the discussion beyond next summer.

As a result, balancing the status issue, not to mention the ever boiling Vieques issue, with Calderón priorities like the economy could get trickier after the summer.

Calderón came to power saying she will bring a new style of governing to Puerto Rico, rather than pledging to make the enormous reforms offered by her predecessor Pedro Rosselló, who undertook large infrastructure projects, sweeping privatizations and sought to remake the island's healthcare system.

That new style promised by Calderón sought to rule by consensus, bring a sobriety to government finances and take a principled stand against corruption. And she has shown herself to be flexible on issues from Vieques to the economy.

Much of the first months of her administration, however, were consumed by decrying the large debts and alleged bad bookkeeping undertaken by the previous administration.

Her decision to overturn a marriage penalty tax repeal that was to take effect this year, which could prove her political Waterloo, was based on the alleged shaky state of government finances she inherited.

Too often during her first year in power, the Calderón administration has given the impression of looking backwards instead of looking forward, and portions of the electorate have already taken notice of it.

Yet, if enough of her economic initiatives can bear fruit, health reform stays afloat, tax cuts are undertaken and large infrastructure projects like the Urban Train are seen through to completion, the Calderón administration may be judged a success.

But clearly the transition from candidate Calderón to Gov. Calderón is over. Whether or not her plans in a variety of areas show results, Puerto Rico's voters will know who is responsible, and they will cast their ballots accordingly the next chance they get.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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