The Flag Wars

by John Marino

June 28, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOThe local flag wars continued this week in the aftermath of the charge on the Women’s Advocate Office led by New Progressive Party leader Carlos Pesquera and a group of pro-statehood lawmakers.

The melee was sparked by the irresponsible decision by Maria Dolores Fernos, the head of the agency, to fly only the Puerto Rican flag at its headquarters, arguing that under the commonwealth political status achieved in 1952, she was not legally bound to fly both the U.S. and Puerto Rican flags at the agency.

Legally binding or not, it has been customary in Puerto Rico government offices to fly both flags, and Fernos was utterly in the wrong for trying to make a political statement at an agency charged with helping female citizens of all political viewpoints. (Justice Secretary Anabelle Rodríguez said that local law calls for the flying of both flags. While federal guidelines on the matter exist, the Congressional Research Service says local jurisdictions ultimately decide whether or not to fly the U.S. flag at local institutions.)

Fernos was once married to Jorge Farinacci, a former Machetero who served time in prison for helping in the infamous Wells Fargo Heist in Connecticut. So the move could have cost her her job, considering the flak that Calderón has received for appointing her in the first place.

But the forcible entry by Pesquera and his crew — after Fernos had announced that she would abide by Gov. Calderón’s order to fly both flags first thing the next morning — took the heat off her and put it squarely on the NPP.

Pesquera, a bright engineer who oversaw some of the largest construction projects in Puerto Rican history under the administration of former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, should have known better. Not all press is good press.

Last week, Pesquera was photographed by island media outlets using a flag pole as a battering ram as he and his cohorts forced their way into the closed office. While supporters called the move a "heroic" defense of the flag, one newspaper summed up local coverage best with its one-word headline "Embarrassment."

The NPP leaders now face charges, expected to be filed as early as today, from inciting a riot to destroying government property to assault.

Why did a smart guy act like an idiot? Internal NPP politics.

The "assault" on Fernos’ office comes after increasing criticism by Pesquera rivals of his "weak" leadership. Most political observers see Pesquera’s move as a gambit to mobilize the NPP’s party base around his leadership to snuff out any potential challenges to his gubernatorial candidacy in 2004.

San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini, the No. 2 man at the NPP and a potential candidate, was conspicuously absent from the protest. Santini admitted that the incident got out of hand, but refused to lay blame on his fellow NPP members, saying instead that he tried to intervene with La Fortaleza to diffuse the incident. By week’s end, he came out backing Pesquera’s actions.

Jorge De Castro Font, who has embraced statehood after being booted from the Popular Democratic Party but has yet to officially join the NPP, said after the incident he would not join the party under Pesquera’s leadership. This comes after weeks of his bashing Pesquera’s leadership.

Most statehood politicians have embraced Pesquera’s actions. Statehood splinter groups like the Organization of Total Statehood have pledged to defend the NPP president should he be prosecuted. Sen. Lucy Arce compared the taking of the Fernos’ office to the raising of the flag after the battle of Iwo Jima.

But Pesquera’s actions have been largely condemned outside the NPP, and some of its leaders, like Sen. Norma Burgos, complained that many inside the party were also ashamed of the spectacle.

Pesquera may have won the immediate battle against potential NPP rivals, but he is now in a weaker position to win the necessary crossover voters to gain La Fortaleza in 2004. He undoubtedly knows this and is betting the bad taste of this incident left in the mouths of non-NPP voters will be gone before then, but that the support he won by hard-core NPP members with his aggressive action will live on until the election.

Unfortunately, the flag incident is not likely to end anytime soon. Charges against the NPP leaders are expected to be filed at any moment. And pro-statehood forces say they will commemorate Friday the one-year anniversary of another flag-raising melee that sparked violence between statehood and independence supporters.

The commonwealth turns 50 next month, and Gov. Calderón, despite the "fiscal crisis" in government, says she will spend over $1 million on a year-long series of celebrations of the birth of that political status.

It’s an opportune moment for the pro-statehood movement to forget about flag rallies and start attacking the political status quo on its merits.

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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