2002: The Challenges Ahead

by John Marino

January 4, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOWith an economic slowdown and the feeling of vulnerability engendered by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 2001 was as difficult a year for Puerto Rico, as it was for the rest of the United States.

Gov. Calderón admitted as much in her New Year's message to Puerto Rico, calling it a "difficult and trying year" but vowing that her administration would "double its efforts" on a variety of fronts

Here's a look at some of the challenges facing the administration and the rest of Puerto Rico in the upcoming year.

The economy

The Calderón administration's self-imposed deadline to win a new federal industrial lure for Puerto Rico looms, along with the 50th anniversary of the Commonwealth, in the summer of 2002.

While she has lined up 47 Republican and Democratic supporters for the Section 956 proposal, its chances of passage are at best 50-50. If she does win approval, it will be a big political victory for her. But the real improvements to the economy probably rely more on a variety of other factors -- the No. 1 being of course an upswing in the U.S. economy to which the island economy is tethered -- than on any new federal tax law.

The Calderón administration must see through to completion a number of infrastructure projects begun under the previous administration of Gov. Rosselló, including the Urban Train, the development of a first class convention center, the proposed transshipment Port of the Americas, and the Route 66 project, which will bring relief to motorists in the burgeoning east coast tourist area.

The Calderón administration has sweetened local incentives for businesses, passing a series of measures meant to improve the business climate, which include slashing capital gains taxes, lowering operating costs of manufacturing plants through expansion of research and training tax credits and providing special incentives for investors who buy plants slated for closure.

But the Puerto Rico government still most get a private sector mentality if wants to attract foreign investment, especially with the absence of federal industrial lures.

For this reason, a comprehensive review of regulations by a number of government agencies dealing with businesses must truly cut down on red tape without gutting environmental safeguards. Quickening, and simplifying, the permitting process in Puerto Rico is essential for spurring the creation of new businesses and cutting down on the rising unemployment rate.


The Calderón administration was dealt another blow on this front this week when a federal judge ruled the commonwealth lacked standing to sue the Navy over its violation of local noise regulations imposed last year.

While the ruling accepted the Navy violated the rules, and that federal entities must comply with such local regulations, Judge Gladys Kessler found that only the executive branch of the federal government can force compliance. Justice Secretary Anabelle Rodríguez said the commonwealth will appeal.

That's the wrong direction to take. A panel of outside health experts already shot down the theory -- on which the lawsuit was originally based -- that sonic booms from Navy ships could be causing "vibro-acoustic disease" among Vieques residents. Now the judge has found that the legal basis of the lawsuit also lacks merit.

Puerto Rico needs to win back its consensus that the Navy should go -- but leave it until the May 1, 2003 date by which President Bush has pledged to withdraw the force.

Given the new realities of the war on terrorism, that date -- just a year and a half away -- seems reasonable. And administration officials such as Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá have said as much. The challenge for the administration is to woo the "Peace for Vieques" protest movement, as well as political opponents, into this new fallback position. New York labor leader Dennis Rivera, who did time in federal jail for trespassing on Navy land, said this week that challenging the Navy through civil disobedience would be "counterproductive" at this time. And he is one of the loyalist friends that Vieques has. So too, it seems, is continuing with a lawsuit that appears to be a loser and an unnecessary challenge to the Navy.

The Calderón administration has done more than previous administrations to see that Vieques social and economic needs are being met, pledging to spend $50 million on the tiny island during her four-year term. That could breed trust and good will among Vieques residents who have been ignored by San Juan administrations for as long as Navy bombing practices have been ongoing.

But the administration still appears to be in the dark about the health and environmental issues facing the tiny island. Rather than wasting energies on the lawsuit, it would be more beneficial to try to undertake comprehensive ground water and other studies to determine what really is the level of contamination in Vieques. The Environmental Quality Board should take the lead in this area, and the administration should be lobbying the Environmental Protection Agency to get more involved.

That would create even more trust among Vieques residents. And it could bolster Calderón's credibility when she calls for law-abiding peaceful protests of military training, rather than outright civil disobedience.

A comprehensive U.S. lobbying effort on the issue must also be renewed to get Bush to stick to his May 1, 2003 pledge. Solidifying support among stateside Hispanic communities is essential to keep the heat on the White House to stick to its pullout date a year before Bush faces reelection.


The commonwealth reaches middle age this summer, turning 50, and Calderón's biggest challenge may be on the status front.

The commonwealth she believes in -- a bilateral pact between the United States and Puerto Rico -- was shot down last year as unconstitutional by the federal Justice Department and other federal agencies.

Her quest to keep the status formula viable in the new millennium, and attractive to a majority of Puerto Ricans, will be even harder as the Popular Democratic Party's autonomist branch clamors for more powers from an increasingly skeptical Congress and White House over the long term prospects of commonwealth.

While she has called for a "process of consensus" to develop in San Juan on how best to resolve Puerto Rico's status dilemma, statehood and independence supporters have already expressed reservations about the process.

The New Progressive Party, meanwhile, needs to come up with a better strategy of selling statehood to an increasingly sophisticated Puerto Rican public, who after 50 years, have become used to the commonwealth formula.

Too often, party leaders have relied on fear tactics, warning of the loss of U.S. citizenship and federal benefits, unless statehood is embraced. The NPP failures in two successive plebiscites called by former Gov. Pedro Rosselló are testaments that the strategy is failing, and a new message is desperately needed.


The local Justice Department appears quite serious about prosecuting cases of public corruption, and it should go on doing so -- regardless of the political dangers involved.

For too long, public officials have acted as if receiving kickbacks and granting contracts to close friends was a natural right that came with the job. In aggressively going after officials from both political parties, the Justice Department is finally erasing that perception.

But the Calderón administration should ax the Blue Ribbon Commission, which is giving firepower to critics who say it is on a witchhunt against NPP officials. And it should desist from plans to amend local law to allow the Justice Department to prosecute cases that its Special Independent Prosecutor's Office deems do not have enough evidence to prosecute. The whole point of the SIP is to prosecute politically sensitive cases so that the Justice Department would be immune from the charge that it is going after political enemies. The proposed amendment would undercut the very purpose of establishing the SIP.

The biggest challenge on this front may be in Calderón's pledge to undertake campaign finance reform, which is set to get underway shortly. Proponents maintain that such a move would undercut the political favoritism in doling out government contracts that has been a consistent problem of NPP and PDP administrations.

Pulling such a move off will require Calderón to not only talk about "consensus" but actually win it from across the political spectrum, however.


Crime is on the rise, with 47 more murders in 2001 than in the year 2000. Furthermore, the Calderón administration wasted nearly a year in attacking the problem under the weak leadership of former Police Superintendent Pierre Vivoni.

Miguel Periera, who replaced Vivoni last month, has talked about completely changing the power structure of the police department by driving politics out the door, reconfiguring how police statistics are kept so that the public believes them and making the force answerable to a citizen's oversight commission. We wish the former U.S. prosecutor and war hero well. Puerto Rico needs a Rudolph Guiliani focus on prosecuting small crimes if it is to ever resolve the large problems it faces. Traffic, parking and noise laws are flouted on a daily basis, often in the face of police officers, and that sends the message that laws don't have to be respected.

There are enough police officers in Puerto Rico, with successive commonwealth administrations and towns across the island beefing up their contingent of agents in recent years. But the cop on the beat has to be willing to prosecute the little crimes if the big crooks are ever going to be caught.

While police are the most visible officials in the fight against crime, the Corrections and Courts administrations also have to be vastly improved if crooks are ever going to get the message that crime does not pay.

"Slow justice is no justice," reads a sign in the offices of the Puerto Rican Bar Association, and justice in Puerto Rico is perhaps slower than anywhere else in the United States. The creation of the Circuit Court of Appeals by the Rosselló administration, attacked by critics as a way to pack the court with political appointees, has worked to speed up the justice system, but more oversight of the work of individual judges is also needed.

The Justice Department, if it is serious about its war on corruption, should take its fight to judges throughout the local courts system. Too often, promising cases are dismissed for lack of sufficient evidence amidst allegations of pay-offs or political favoritism.

The problems of the Corrections Administration, meanwhile, are legendary, with a decades-long federal court suit on behalf of inmates about dismal prison conditions still active in federal court.

Just last month, a series of local press reports highlighted how dozens of convicted murderers have been freed under an early release program through a legal loophole which allowed them to walk after only completing one-third of their sentences.

And last year, it came to light that several former police officers, implicated in Puerto Rico's perhaps most infamous crime, the Cerro Maravilla murders, were let free years before they should have been because of a computation error by Corrections Administration personnel.

Puerto Rico's war on crime needs a complete overhaul.

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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