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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Face To Face: A Conversation With Sila Calderón
By Deborah Ramirez, Editorial Writer
February 3, 2002
Q. Why have you decided to start a voter-registration drive among Puerto Ricans in the United States?
A. During my campaign for governor I visited the U.S. and came across several Puerto Rican groups, and I heard this common complaint: "The Puerto Rican government is here to talk to us because they need us for their issues. When are they going to address our issues?"
I made a commitment that my government would be available to help them. I have realized, and I think the (Mayor) Michael Bloomberg election in New York proved it, that the Hispanic vote, and within it the Puerto Rican vote, is an important one.
Under the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, we have regional offices in 11 U.S. cities [including Miami and Orlando]. Nine will be part of this voter-registration drive that we have conceptualized. It is an effort to empower Puerto Ricans politically so that they can be a voice in the issues that affect them.
Q. Why should Puerto Rico care if Puerto Ricans in the mainland United States vote or not?
A. First of all, we are one family. Half of Puerto Ricans live here and half in the U.S. and we have an invisible bridge going back and forth.
Whatever is important for them, whatever helps them better their lives, it's important for us also. And they can also help us by electing people to Congress, state governments, or the presidency, who are sensitive to our issues in Puerto Rico. So this is a two-way street.
Q. On another matter, how did the Sept. 11 attacks affect your government's efforts to halt Navy bombing exercises in Vieques?
A. Definitely, our principles and purpose are the same: To stop military practices there as soon as possible. On the other hand, we realize and we are very sensitive to the fact that Sept. 11 has changed everything.
We are in a war and we back the efforts of President Bush as he faces the challenges of terrorism. We share and value the principles of liberty and democracy that he is defending.
Q. Your government has lost a federal court suit against the Navy regarding Puerto Rico's noise ordinance. Where do you go from here?
A. For us the most important thing is that President Bush makes good on his word of ceasing the exercises on or before 2003, and we trust his word. We want to assure that he reiterate that commitment and that the Navy makes good on its promise of looking for an alternative site.
It's important for U.S. nationals to see this as a human rights issue. It's an issue about a very poor population that has been subjected to circumstances of life that are unacceptable anywhere in the United States, particularly for U.S. citizens.
Q. How do you respond to criticism that Puerto Rico is trying to evade its national defense duties?
A. There have been a lot of misconceptions. We share the responsibility of common defense, and it is one of the foundations of the commonwealth status. Our men and women go to war and many Puerto Ricans have spilled their blood alongside U.S. nationals in all the wars of this century, starting from World War I to Afghanistan. Comparatively speaking, more Puerto Ricans have died in these wars and we are very proud of sharing that responsibility of national defense.
Q. Switching subjects, do you believe that Puerto Rico's commonwealth status has a future?
A. Definitely. It survives inasmuch as the people want it. And because most people feel it affords the possibility of keeping that wonderful permanent relationship that we have with the U.S. and remaining Puerto Ricans.
In my case, for Sila Calderón, who happens to be governor of Puerto Rico, in me co-exists the two realities with no contradictions whatsoever. I am very clear that this is a unique solution to a unique situation.
I am clear also that we would like to improve it. But that does not mean that commonwealth has not had, and still has, wonderful value for us.
Q. How can the commonwealth deal with its inherent problem -- lack of representation in Congress and in the White House, democratic institutions that have final say over Puerto Rico?
A. We have to deal with it. How are we going to do that should come about as a result of dialogue. We need a solution to this problem of lack of representation.
Which particular solution at this point, I cannot tell you. But it is something we must deal with because there are so many (U.S.) laws that apply to Puerto Rico in which we have no representation and no participation. And sometimes, frankly, these laws apply unfairly to Puerto Rico because the conditions of the U.S. mainland are not the same as here.
Q. For example?
A. Immigration laws. The United States is obviously the most powerful economic and political country. We are a small, poor island in the Caribbean, and we cannot control who comes in. And we have this huge immigration from other parts of the Caribbean which comes here and we have limited resources.
Q. In what ways would you like to see the commonwealth status improve?
A. As long as we continue divided on how to go about it, we are never going to be able to demand action from Washington. To get action, you need political will. It's very difficult to coalesce that will when there are so many fragments coming and speaking different languages. So what we have proposed, which is an uphill battle, is that we come together in a commission, which we have called Puerto Rico Consensus and Unity Commission, and try to agree to the procedural aspects for [political status] change.
Do we want to have a constitutional convention or a binding plebiscite or a status committee named by the president or a joint committee named by the president and the governor? If we can reach a consensus [among the island's political parties] then we can go to Washington and say this is what we want.
Q. Should the spark for dealing with Puerto Rico's status come from Congress or from Puerto Rico?
A. It has to come from Puerto Rico and it has to be united. If not, it will never get off the ground. It will always be a controversy.
Q. Can you expand on the dual reality you talked about earlier?
A. It certainly is unique because what has happened in Puerto Rico is very particular and the way I would explain it is like this: My heritage and my identity is Hispanic and Puerto Rican. I speak Spanish, I think in Spanish. My values and my culture are Hispanic and Puerto Rican. I feel very proud of that which identifies me. But we have a political relationship with the United States that has a historic origin and that's a fact.
And I'm also a U.S. citizen, which also has a historic origin and is also a fact. I treasure the same values of democracy and liberty that the U.S. citizenship embodies. So we have this wonderful compact which allows me to be those realities.
Q. Do you disagree with the Puerto Rican pro-statehood argument that Puerto Rico can become a U.S. state and hang onto the Spanish language and its separate cultural identity?
A. I disagree with it. Not only the identity but the fact that our fiscal autonomy is so important to us.
Q. How has Puerto Rico's economy been affected since Sept. 11?
A. The economic recession has affected us the same way it's affected the states.
We are facing a tight budgetary situation. We have to be extremely creative and disciplined in order to get through this year. However, we are hopeful there will be a turnaround later in the year.
Q. Does Puerto Rico need a new model for economic development?
A. We have lost over 27,000 manufacturing jobs since 1996 when the phase-out of Section 936 [of the Internal Revenue Code, which allowed American companies in Puerto Rico to send profits home without paying taxes] started. We are struggling to get another incentive. Right now manufacturing is over 40 percent of our GNP, so this is a very important sector of our economy.
We need an incentive because it is very expensive to invest in Puerto Rico. Federal minimum wage and environmental laws -- which we want -- apply here. But that makes it difficult to compete with other destinations like Mexico, Ireland and Singapore.
Q. What type of economic incentive are you proposing?
A. An amendment to Section 956 of the Internal Revenue Code. What it would do is allow controlled foreign corporations, which are U.S. subsidiaries, in Puerto Rico to repatriate their profits back to the states at a lower tax rate. Right now, what controlled foreign corporations around the world do is that they never bring their money back. They re-invest it [outside the U.S.].
If this amendment passes, it would be good for Puerto Rico because people would come here to invest. It would also be good for the United States because the profits from these corporations would come back into the economy.
I really think we have come up with a wonderful solution, which right now has bipartisan support in Congress.
Q. How can Puerto Rico lessen its dependency on U.S. federal funds?
A. First of all, many of those funds, we pay for them, like Social Security, and secondly, we are U.S. citizens. Of course, I prefer jobs to federal funds; that is why that 956 amendment is so important to us.
Just let us have that incentive. We will be competitive. We will get our own jobs.
Q. How important is Puerto Rico for the U.S. economy?
A. We are the seventh consumer market in the world for U.S. products. We consume more than Brazil and Australia, countries that are huge. Every time a job is created here, it has repercussions in the states.