The Non-Resident Commissioner

by John Marino

February 22, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOAnibal Acevedo Vilá became the first resident commissioner in Puerto Rico history Wednesday night to address the Legislature.

But he used the historic moment to give an overview of his accomplishments during his first year in office and announced no new initiatives.

The planned address was attacked by political opponents in the New Progressive and Puerto Rican Independence parties as a waste of public funds on what would be essentially a political speech, and most boycotted the $30,000 event.

They were right.

Acevedo Vilá kicked off the speech by criticizing the track record of his predecessor, Carlos Romero Barceló, for promoting statehood and the repeal of federal industrial incentives for the island like Section 936 and Section 30-A.

He also accused his predecessors of "mismanagement and corruption" which prompted Congress to freeze federal funds for the Urban Train and millions for the Housing Department.

Meanwhile, the resident commissioner took credit for everything good that happened in Washington over the past year, such as Puerto Rico being treated equally with the 50 states in its share of Title 1 education funds, which will mean millions of additional dollars for the island school system.

Federal funding for Puerto Rico, in general, rose during Acevedo Vila's first year in office. But taking credit for that, rather than attributing it to inflation, is disingenuous to say the least.

The fight for equality in educational funding, meanwhile, stretches back at least a decade, and both Romero Barceló and his predecessor Antonio Colorado, were very much involved in the struggle.

Nothing in Acevedo Vilá's speech was in and of itself really objectionable. It was typical of the political spin that resident commissioners for years have put on events in the nation's capital -- taking credit for the good and downplaying the bad.

But he should have paid heed to his critics and not delivered it at the Capitol.

"If they want to play politics, they should put up a podium in front of the Popular Democratic Party headquarters in Puerta de Tierra and do it over there," said PIP Sen. Fernando Martín.

Added the PIP North American Relations Secretary Manuel Rodríguez Orellana: "I can imagine a future resident commissioner from the New Progressive Party doing the same thing that today their leaders bitterly criticize, citing the Acevedo Vilá precedent."

The strongest criticism came from NPP Sen. Orlando Parga, who said the resident commissioner's post is a "colonial embarrassment" and should be eliminated.

"Acevedo Vilá's address is not only ridiculous, it tarnishes the Legislature and presents a posture of colonial submission," he added.

Even PDP lawmakers were timid in their support. Sen. Eudaldo Baéz Galib said he saw no problem with the address because "even singers and artists go to the Capitol and speak."

It's telling that Acevedo Vilá took the initiative to become the first resident commissioner to address the Legislature, as he is the first Puerto Rican to hold that office not to establish full-time residency in Washington.

Opponents have dubbed him the "non-resident commissioner" because he generally spends Tuesday through Thursday in Washington and the rest of his time in San Juan.

Acevedo Vilá has defended his approach to the job, saying that most Congress representatives travel to their districts each weekend.

But critics rebut that most representatives don't represent Puerto Rico, which has no vote in Congress and can use all the influence it can muster in the nation's capital as a result.

Romero Barceló, by contrast, lived full time in Washington, and used his non-working hours to smooze with other members of Congress. He has said that he often accomplished more over dinner with other members than in formal meetings in Congress.

The different approaches to the job of resident commissioner taken by Acevedo Vilá and Romero Barceló may be partially explained by their political ideologies, with the pro-statehood Romero more eager to participate fully in the U.S. political system than the pro-commonwealth Acevedo Vilá.

This attitude extends to the Calderón administration as a whole. For example, no Puerto Rico-related resolutions will be on the agenda this weekend during the National Governors Association winter meeting.

Since the governorship of Romero Barceló, and through the successive Hernández Colón and Rosselló administrations, the governors group has supported resolutions calling on the federal government to allow the people of Puerto Rico to choose their political status. But the annual resolution was dropped from the agenda when Gov. Calderón took office.

Romero Barceló was rightly criticized for too often pursuing his own agenda - which at times appeared to be statehood at any cost - during his eight years in Washington, but Acevedo Vilá could learn a thing or two from his predecessor's networking abilities. One could even argue that as a commonwealth supporter, he should make the most of the Congressional representation it affords to try to accomplish the most he can for the island.

His freshman year saw some good things (Title 1 parity) and some bad things (the Congressional gutting of the Vieques accord). Ultimately, Acevedo Vila's record will stand on what happens during his next three years in office - regardless of how much control he has over the events.

But the criticism launched at Acevedo Vilá this week is apart from his job performance. It is precisely because he, as a member of Congress, has no business addressing the Puerto Rico Legislature.

By doing so, Acevedo Vilá threw a spotlight on the strange hybrid that the resident commissioner's post is: part U.S. Congressman, part gubernatorial running mate.

One positive thing that could come of it is that Puerto Rico begins rethinking how it elects its sole Congressional representative.

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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