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Orlando Sentinel

Mayor's Horse-Drawn Protest Keeps His Act In Political Scene

By Iván Román

September 22, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- A horse is a horse, of course.

Except when she's supposed to be the governor.

Lady Di, a gray mare, was well prepped for her debut on the Puerto Rican political scene last week.

The star of a protest with 40 horses, their riders and dozens more led by an angry Canóvanas Mayor José "Chemo" Soto, Lady Di sported a huge set of fake teeth moved by remote control. Amid "chattering," a voice simulating Gov. Sila Calderón's came over the loudspeakers.

"Did Chemo come? Did Chemo come?" the mare seemed to say through her flapping "jaws."

"Yes, I'm here, governor," the mayor answered, looking into Lady Di's eyes.

The "governor" then answered somewhat angrily, "Chemo, you know that in two years I haven't given you an appointment, and today I'm not giving you one either."

It's the third time the governor refuses to see Soto, who claims Calderón and her Popular Democratic Party administration have frozen $48 million in pending projects in his city of 50,000 people because he belongs to the opposition New Progressive Party.

Called colorful by some and a clown by others, Soto's previous claim to fame was as the No. 1 public servant hunting down the legendary Chupacabras -- which literally means goat sucker -- that supposedly roamed the countryside, sucking blood out of chickens and goats.

Now that the Chupacabras is old news, Calderón became Soto's way of staying in the public eye, which in certain towns is crucial if you want to keep being mayor.

At the governor's protocol greeting in January, Soto walked up the steps of La Fortaleza, the executive mansion, in a white suit with complaints about spotty running water in his city written all over it in black magic marker. She refused to let him in the French-style parlor with colonial mirrors and antique furniture.

He then led a protest march for miles from his city east of San Juan to La Fortaleza in the blazing sun and pouring rain. He refused to meet with Calderón aides and left.

On Monday, he was back with a procession of 40 horses and dozens of people that lasted more than seven hours, talking about how she took federal money away that would have paid for a new police station and school, among other things. He once again turned her aides away. He even spoke of having enough to prove political discrimination in federal court.

"The governor thinks this is a game, something that's amusing, or a show, and it's not," Soto said, facing a row of police officers keeping him and the protesters a block away from La Fortaleza. "It's time she listens to our people's demands."

Even in the island's loud and combative political scene, Soto is among those to raise the most eyebrows with his antics. After squeezing all he could out of the Chupacabra saga, he more recently called on the press to watch him splash around in the river with a bar of soap to dramatize the water problem.

Popular politics here have always had their spark. Former Gov. Carlos Romero Barceló is still known in many circles as "the horse," and ex-Gov.Rafael Hernández Colón is still admiringly called "the rooster."

But mayors such as Soto or Cataño's Edwin Rivera Sierra, a k a "El Amolao" -- known for squatting in protest on a Vieques target range in an air-conditioned tent full of Heineken and whiskey -- are a class apart.

Miffed at Lady Di with big fake teeth down the block, Jorge Colberg Toro, the governor's public-affairs secretary, rolled out a list of $82 million in projects that are in progress in Soto's city, including a new pumping station to solve the water problem.

But he hinted the rift was now more personal because Soto called Calderón an ignorant "ass" on the radio that morning.

"It's not the first time this man makes disrespectful comments about the governor, and if he doesn't know how to behave he can't expect to be received," Colberg said. "People who make this kind of scene, well, it says more about him than anything I could say."

The afternoon sun finally forced Soto away, the horses plodding along Old San Juan's cobblestonelike streets. But it doesn't seem as if that's the end of it.

"We want to talk to the ringleader of the circus, not to the monkeys," Canóvanas maintenance worker Marta Flores Ortíz, 33, yelled in the mansion's direction. "The next time, we'll come in parachutes or by boat in the back way so they'll respect us."

Even in Puerto Rico's colorful political scene, that certainly would take the cake.

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