|Theres nothing like a peace conference, it seems, to give someone a reason to be angry.
That was the case anyway with the International Conference on Peace and Development that took place in San Juan this week and seemed to tick just about everybody off.
Co-sponsored by the Puerto Rico Senate and the Arías Foundation, the event brought together from across the world a group of prestigious individuals who in some way or other are seen as having contributed to the effort to bring about world peace.
Much of the anger has been directed at Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora, who has been taking credit for organizing the conference for several months now. (The idea to hold the conference in San Juan rests with Nobel Peace Prize Winner Oscar Arias, the former Costa Rican president whose foundation is set to benefit from a portion of the proceeds, according to some insiders.)
Fas probably wasnt surprised that pro-statehood lawmakers, notably Sen. Miriam Ramírez de Ferrer, started attacking the conference as a poor use of public funds and for sending out an anti-American message.
But groups from across the political spectrum soon joined in on the attack.
Those working to end Navy training on Vieques complained that their cause did not figure prominently enough on the conference agenda. Other civil rights groups pointed out that those laboring on what they said are the front lines of world peace social workers and counselors working with domestic violence or sexual abuse victims were not among those invited.
The gay and lesbian community protested their exclusion from the conference, while one of their archenemies local preacher Jorge Raschke condemned the presence of "satanic" performers inside.
Fas can place blame for much of the ruckus at his own feet. If he did not express such overblown rhetoric about the importance of the meeting, it would not have caught the eye of most of the protesters.
In newsrooms across Puerto Rico, veteran observers of the local political scene wondered aloud: "Why the hell is Tony Fas trying to bring about world peace if we cant get decent water service and only catch 26 percent of island crooks?"
The decision to hold the conference no doubt partially stems from Fass political leanings; as an autonomous popular he wants to expand Puerto Ricos influence in the region and Europe.
And criticism of U.S. policy cropped up in many of the panel discussions that some observers said exposed an anti-American slant.
That was evident when Northern Ireland Nobel Prize winner Betty Williams praised the island government for "having the courage to hold this conference to tell the larger country that you don't necessarily have to agree with everything they do."
The conference probably did little to expand Puerto Ricos international influence, just as while it did not hurt the effort to bring about world peace, it probably did little overall to bring that elusive goal any closer.
But, overall, the conference brought Puerto Rico some positive media attention, which few would argue could hurt, given the current hurricane season and the on-going post 9/11 tourism malaise.
And after all, it brought local hero Ricky Martin back home for at least a few days anyway.
The real problem, however, is the decision by Fas to partially sponsor the event with Senate funds, especially given pressing needs such as the lack of emergency medical equipment and personnel or the huge backlog at the Forensic Sciences Institute that allows criminal suspects to return to the streets.
Fas guestimated to one reporter that about $150,000 in Senate funds would be used in holding the event, but he declined to give a final figure before a complete accounting of the conference is undertaken, which could be by weeks end. Some media reports suggest the figure could be closer to $500,000.
On one level, the cost is important. If Fas spent 100 grand, it could be argued it was a good investment just from the media coverage the conference generated. But the argument will wear thin fast if much more in public funds was spent.
But on another level committing public funds of any amount was the wrong move. Thats because once that was done, the views of conference participants, at least in many taxpayers minds, reflected on those of the local government, and by extension Puerto Ricans at large.
So when Spanish judge Baltázar Garzón, who ordered the arrest of Augusto Pinochet, criticized the lengthy detention of suspected terrorists by the U.S. government, NPP President Carlos Pesquera seized the moment to denounce that Fas was making Puerto Rico look like a "banana republic," with the PDP talking about permanent union with the United States while sponsoring a conference that attacked it.
The conference illustrates a lot about the figure of Fas, an odd character who is too much the superficial politician, concerned with appearance, to be considered an intellectual, but who nonetheless has shown a propensity for esoteric pursuits.
For example, he spent public funds bringing in linguistic experts from throughout the world to testify on his plan to file legislation to amend the Puerto Rico Constitution to make Spanish the sole official language even though Gov. Calderón had said the issue was not a priority and she would not approve such a bill.
Its more important to note, however, that in his search for world peace, Fas forgot one of the most basic premises in achieving that goal: that it is supposed to start in your own backyard.
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