NPP Needs To Woo Statehooders

by John Marino

March 8, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOThe anniversary of the extension of U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans has become in recent years a reason for statehooders to celebrate and a political event designed to mobilize the base of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party.

The occasion was first celebrated prominently with a rally outside the Capitol in 2000. The brainchild of Sen. Orlando Parga, it was meant to send a strong message to Washington that most Puerto Ricans treasured their association with the United States at a time when anti-Navy protests over its Vieques training ground were sending out a starkly different message.

It also served as the official launch of the gubernatorial candidacy of New Progressive Party leader Carlos Pesquera, who gave a rousing speech on the benefits of statehood and was cheered by the tens of thousands of supporters who showed up on that March day.

Coverage of the event made it into the pages of the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

But this year's gathering last Sunday, like so many of the party's affairs these days, was overshadowed by the corruption scandals involving former Rosselló administration officials. Attendance was estimated at a mere 10,000.

Most news reports, all local, played up the pledge made by Pesquera to "do whatever it takes to regain the trust of voters."

"Our people betrayed us, but they were only a handful," he added.

But in the wake of the indictment of former Education Secretary Victor Fajardo and 16 others in a $4.3 million dollar extortion scheme at the agency, voters here are expecting many more arrests of former officials and the contractors with which they did business.

And it's not clear what Pesquera, who spent a good portion of his speech referring to the corruption charges, can do to restore that trust.

Time will tell how many more, if any, indictments will come down involving former Rosselló administration officials, but Puerto Rico's hyperactive media crackles daily with new twists and turns that local and federal investigations are "allegedly" taking.

One daily newspaper's coverage of the rally was overshadowed by a banner story on how federal investigators may be analyzing a Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act prosecution, originally designed to fight the Mafia, against the NPP.

Since the party allegedly benefited from $1 million stolen in federal funds in the Education scam, prosecutors are looking to determine if similar schemes were employed in other agencies to benefit the party.

As one attorney representing indicted contractors put it: "This was the manner in which the government did business. You want a contract? Okay, then pay me a fee so that I can give it to the party."

Federal and local authorities continue to probe the Education Department to determine if other contractors may have been involved in kickback schemes.

More ominously for the NPP, authorities continue to probe whom, if anyone, at La Fortaleza or NPP headquarters in Santurce may have given the approval to solicit bribes from government contractors to raise money for the party.

Similar contract-for-bribe schemes are being investigated by authorities at the State Insurance Fund, the Health Department and the Sports and Recreation Department, among other agencies.

Sources with knowledge of the SIF investigation have repeatedly told reporters that the amount of money allegedly extorted from contractors will far surpass that in the Education scandal.

Party founder Luis A. Ferré last week joined a growing chorus of voices calling on former Gov. Pedro Rosselló to speak to the Puerto Rican public about the wave of corruption cases that federal authorities have uncovered in the commonwealth government under his administration. So far, he has remained silent, refusing to be interviewed by the press.

And it is his former Transportation Secretary Pesquera, the engineer of the Rosselló administration, who oversaw so many of its successful infrastructure projects, who has been left to respond to the scandals which took place under his former boss's tenure.

Pesquera has called for those found guilty to pay and has repeatedly reminded the public that corruption is not confined to the NPP. His responses to the Fajardo scandal, and allegations by federal authorities that the party benefited from the stolen funds while he was president, have yet to stir passions from the party loyalists, let alone build trust among the broader voting public, however.

Pesquera's return to the Capitol on Sunday to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the granting of U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans was in some ways a brave gesture, in others a bad political move, given the current circumstances surrounding the party.

Pesquera's speech this year, like that he made two years ago as gubernatorial candidate, was an obvious appeal to energize the party base. But new tactics will have to be employed to accomplish that goal in these new times.

A friend I bumped into this week, a lifelong statehooder who wants to die in the 51st state of Puerto Rico, said he didn't attend the Sunday rally. "I've always been a statehooder, but an NPP member, not anymore," he said.

Like my friend, the corruption scandals have alienated a good part of the NPP base membership and it is no longer a given that statehood supporters are NPP members.

The NPP needs a new strategy, and perhaps a new leader, to energize island statehood supporters once again.

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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