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Calderon: Millenium Demolition Not Considered For Now, Begins Private Meetings To Discuss Electoral ReformUPR Student Council OK’S Strikes Against NavyAmigo & Wal-Mart Defend MergerPrasa Files $350M Lawsuit Against Water Co…Influx Of Migrants Is A Mystery

Calderon: Millenium Demolition Not Considered For Now

By Proviana Colon Diaz of WOW News

November 14, 2002
Copyright © 2002 WOW NEWS. All rights reserved. 

The destruction of the Millennium Condominium is not something that is being considered "at this time" by Gov. Sila Calderon’s administration.

"It’s an extreme suggestion, and we are not considering it, at this time," Calderon said.

Calderon’s statements are issued days after the Blue Ribbon Committee has come under fire for their recommendation, which she accepted when she was informed of their findings.

Created by her through an executive order and presided over by former Puerto Rican Independence Party Legislator David Noriega, the committee on Monday made public their seventh report, this time on alleged irregularities in the construction of the Millennium Condominium in Puerta de Tierra, San Juan.

The irregularities range from the sale of the property by the government to Cesar Cabrera’s corporation ROCCA Development at less than its real value to approving changes in permits and to the condominium’s main entrance.

The committee also suggested that while the Justice Department is investigating the possible violations all permits for the condominium be halted.

If upon its conclusion the Justice Department finds criminal intent, the government should request reimbursement and order the destruction of the upscale condominium.

The possibility of demolition has caused anger among constructors and developers.

Calderon, however, ensured bankers, constructors, and developers that her government’s permit-granting process made within the margins of the law will be respected.

"I want to reaffirm to the financial community of Puerto Rico, developers, contractors, and banks that my administration will respect and will be firm that all permits obeyed the process of the law and there were no irregularities," Calderon said.

The governor acknowledged that she referred the committee’s findings to the respective government agencies and ordered them to work in a "speedy" manner.

Calderon Begins Private Meetings To Discuss Electoral Reform

By Proviana Colon Diaz of WOW News

November 14, 2002
Copyright © 2002 WOW NEWS. All rights reserved. 

Island public figures, like Commonwealth Comptroller Manuel Diaz Saldaña and former San Juan Mayor Hector Luis Acevedo, who had expressed serious concern about Gov. Sila Calderon’s proposed Public Financing Campaign Bill, said, after an afternoon meeting with the governor Thursday, that the bill should be saved as it supports improves democracy.

"We should make a great effort to save an indispensable bill for our society. This is the most important bill of this four-year term because; it goes to the core of our democracy," Acevedo said.

Calderon held the first of a series of private meetings she will carry out in the hope of finding out first hand about the people’s perception of the bill. This, after strong opposition was expressed by politicians, and public figures, during the House public hearings addressing the issue.

The governor defended her right to hold private meetings, arguing that she will reveal her findings after the round of meetings is over.

"We will discuss all aspects. What I want to do is to directly listen to the perspectives from different sectors of our society," Calderon said earlier Thursday following a press conference in Ocean Park.

Also participating in Thursday’s meeting were Government Ethics Office Director Hiram Morales, Bar Association President Arturo Davila, and State Elections Commission President Aurelio Gracia.

Following the nearly two-hour long meeting, all participants agreed that their perception is that the governor is open to suggestions and the meeting was and open and frank dialogue.

All participants agreed that as filed, the bill does has its merits such as in the proposed increase to penalties for violations to the Electoral Law and the establishment of an advertising ban throughout the four-year term and not only during election year.

"We can have shorter campaigns and greater penalties," Diaz Saldaña said.

Others, like Morales, however, argued that such a ban should be mandatory for the entire government and not only for elected officials.

Gracia said his position hasn’t changed.

"It is well known that from my perspective, and on general terms there could be problems during the process," Gracia said.

He added, however, that he presented a recommendation to the governor for the creation of a committee of people from different sectors for the discussion of the subject and not the bill.

Davila said it is the Bar Association’s policy to endorse anything that is beneficial for the people of Puerto Rico, and that public financing of electoral campaigns is beneficial because "we have to teach our people that politics are not just for the economic welfare of a few."

The governor will continue to hold meetings in the coming weeks before making the decision to call an extraordinary session solely for the approval of the bill.

UPR Student Council Approves Strikes Against Navy

By Melissa B. Gonzalez Valentin of WOW News

November 14, 2002
Copyright © 2002 WOW NEWS. All rights reserved. 

University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Rio Piedras Campus students voted in favor of two work strikes: one to protest the new round of military practices on Vieques in January and another to protest against the U.S. Navy if it fails to withdraw its forces from Vieques by May 2003, as agreed by President George W. Bush.

The two resolutions were presented during the UPR General Student Council’s first ordinary session that was held at Plaza Antonia, behind the campus tower.

The first stoppage will be held at the ROTC building on the Rio Piedras Campus. The second stoppage is supposed to be island wide, as has been proposed by Puerto Rico Independence Party President Ruben Berrios on several occasions.

The students’ first ordinary session was peacefully conducted, though not entirely without confrontation. There was no fight over U.S. flags or pro-statehood demonstrations from the Pro-Statehood Youth (JPE by its Spanish acronym). But that didn’t stop pro-independence students from taking turns to criticize the ideas of the opposition, and vice-versa.

JPE President Felix Plau, who had been the center of several altercations during the past few weeks for distributing U.S. flags and holding demonstrations without permission, called for ideological tolerance on campus.

"We propose that the students of the UPR defend peace and the freedom of expression here on the university," said Plau, who was booed by a group of pro-independence students.

A little later, outgoing Student Council Press Secretary Laura Rodriguez presented a motion to amend Plau’s proposition and include world peace as well as peace for Vieques. Plau only agreed to include the first part, but the amendment was approved anyway.

"Peace for Vieques will be achieved through statehood for Puerto Rico," he said, much to the dismay of most of those present.

On the other hand, the resolution that was expected to be ratified to repudiate JPE’s actions and to refer to JPE members as mobs was not presented.

General Student Council President Josue Caamaño said it wasn’t necessary to present it as it has already been approved during the extraordinary session held Nov. 7. He denied that the resolution was not ratified to avoid confrontation, as requested by members of the faculty and non-teaching personnel.

"It wasn’t because of that. The resolution has already been approved (. . .) Obviously no one presented it, so no one ratified it, but the resolution has already been approved," said Caamaño.

The student president also said he was satisfied with what had been presented during the ordinary session.

"There is a lot of work to do. Now we must meet to decide which things should be worked on by the administration and which should be worked on by the students or the faculty," Caamaño added.

Several other resolutions approved Thursday were those opposing an increase in tuition fees and a possible charge on the use of the multi-story parking lot that is being built for the students.

Amigo And Wal-Mart Officials Defend Merger

By Proviana Colon Diaz of WOW News

November 13, 2002
Copyright © 2002 WOW NEWS. All rights reserved. 

The final public hearing on the consequences of the Amigo/Wal-Mart merger concluded Wednesday with the local corporation defending its right to sell and the multi-national chain store defending its history of being a good patron.

Amigo Board of Directors President Steven Lausell said the corporation’s decision to sell is final, as most of the business’ founders are over the age of giving up work and want to enjoy their retirement.

"The founders are mostly in their 80’s. As a way of ending their successful investment they have determined to sell it and leave the business in the hands of people they can trust to carry on with the values and criteria of Wal-Mart’s founders."

Revuelta added that in the search for a possible buyer, Wal-Mart was the company that best met their standards, as they were committed to providing good services and good benefits for their employees.

Although no written agreement exists, Wal-Mart’s Personnel People Director Gerardo Hernandez said it is the company’s intention to preserve the jobs of the 3,500 Amigo employees.

"We don’t anticipate any dismissals," Hernandez said.

Representatives from the two corporations made their statements during a public hearing held Wednesday by the House Labor & Veterans Affairs Committee investigating possible consequences of the supermarket chain merger with the world largest retailer.

With a one-hour delay and the absence of Committee Chairman Severo Colberg Toro, the hearing was headed by Senate Labor Committee member Rafael Irizarry.

Questioned by the legislator, Wal-Mart representatives argued that contrary to what previous witnesses have testified, their labor policies are not offensive and do not go against employee benefits. Hernandez said Wal-Mart has been recognized as being the best employer in the United Kingdom, where they operate ASDA, a retail store.

According to Hernandez, the U.S. president has also praised them.

"If the president of the United States honors our company, why should it be believed that our record is negative?" Hernandez said.

Hernandez added that starting employees of Wal-Mart earned 5 cents more than the minimum wage and has better retirement benefits than those of Amigo.

He also cleared for the record that contrary to what has been said in the hearing, the company is negotiating permits to be allowed to open a 350,000-square-foot storage facility and not 800,000 feet, as has been said.

Executive meetings will begin Thursday and will continue until the committee files its report next week, when the ordinary legislative session is scheduled to conclude.

Prasa Files $350 Million Lawsuit Against Water Co.

By Melissa B. Gonzalez Valentin of WOW News

November 12, 2002
Copyright © 2002 WOW NEWS. All rights reserved. 

Juan Agosto Alicea, president of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (Prasa) President said the public corporation on Tuesday filed at the San Juan Superior Court a $350 million lawsuit on Tuesday against the Water Co., its former operator, for damages allegedly resulting from negligent administration.

"The Water Co. had enough time to comply with the needs of the Puerto Rican people by operating the authority as it had promised to do so since 1995. My duty would be incomplete if I don’t make this move so one of the key culprits of the disaster we are in answers for its negligence and administrative inefficiency," Agosto Alicea said.

The Prasa president said the Water Co. failed to pay a $22 million debt to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) for utility services in March, April, May, and June. The money came from the public corporation, but the debt has yet to be paid.

"The Water Co. has decided to illegally hold on to that amount in public funds which was transferred by Prasa so it could pay its debts with Prepa," he said.

The lawsuit also demands reimbursement of an extra $6 million the public corporation paid for a fuel price-adjustment invoice of $12.3 million. Agosto Alicea also accused the former operator of knowingly keeping that extra money.

Agosto Alicea said the Water Co. must pay for multimillion-dollar claims by union workers whose accumulated vacation time hadn’t been liquidated. For this, he said he would ask La Fortaleza to file a legislative bill to allow Prasa to receive a $100 million credit line from the Government Development Bank to resolve this situation as soon as possible, and avoid an additional penalty. The Prasa president said that as of Dec. 2001 the public corporation owed $63 million in vacation time to union employees.

The lawsuit also includes $12 million in fines from the Environmental Protection Agency. He said the former operator failed to provide proper maintenance of the aqueduct infrastructure, resulting in penalties.

However, he said Puerto Rico residents shouldn’t be alarmed, since these fines have no bearing on the quality of the island’s potable water, but on the procedures the Water Co. should have followed to ensure that quality as required by revised federal standards.

Agosto Alicea blamed the Water Co. for the deterioration, overload, and obsolescence of Prasa facilities. However, he admitted, compared to the state it was in before the Water Co. took over in 1995, other areas have improved. For example, he said all Prasa water-treatment plants now have been released from the receivership they were in 10 years ago.

The public official said previous efforts to resolve the situation with the former operator has led nowhere. Nevertheless, he said Prasa is still willing to settle the matter out of court if the Water Co. agrees to restitute the public money, clients has had to pay because of the operator’s alleged negligent administration.

He added that neither the lawsuit nor the $100 million credit line he intends to ask for will alter or affect the contract with Ondeo Services.

Agosto Alicea distances himself from Water Co.

Amid apparent disaster, Agosto Alicea had to admit Gov. Sila Calderon’s administration had allowed the Water Co. to bid for the new 10-year contract, which is now in the hands of Ondeo Services.

When WOW News asked if Calderon would have awarded the contract to the Water Co. if it had presented a better offer than the current operator, Agosto Alicea said it was an excellent but academic question, because that scenario never took place.

Still, reporters raised the issue about why a company with presumably poor administration skills was ever considered in the bidding process. Agosto Alicea said the government had no way of knowing the extent of the crisis until the contract had ended.

He also said the Calderon administration needed to have an idea of how much a 10-year contract would cost Prasa. Thus, the Water Co. was allowed to make a bid so the government would have something with which to compare the rest of the proposals.

Influx Of Migrants To Puerto Rico Is A Mystery

By Matthew Hay Brown | San Juan Bureau

OCTOBER 19, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved. 

AGUADILLA, Puerto Rico -- Authorities are searching for explanations behind an apparent surge in undocumented migrants attempting the dangerous ocean passage from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico.

Twenty Dominicans detained here Friday brought to 157 the number processed by the U.S. Border Patrol here during the first weeks of the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. That's nearly a fifth of the total for all of last year, and it doesn't include 84 more Dominicans intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard on the open sea at the end of September and turned over to the Dominican navy without being processed.

"We're seeing an increase in the numbers coming over," Coast Guard Lt. William Nunes, senior controller at Greater Antilles Section headquarters in San Juan, said Friday. "We haven't received any specific information as to why that might be."

Migrants may pay more than $500 each to be carried from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico aboard an open wooden yola, or small boat, built for a single journey. The trip, which takes 11 hours by legitimate ferry, may last up to four days as the captain zigzags across the Mona Passage to elude Dominican and U.S. authorities.

Once they reach Puerto Rico, they're on U.S. territory. Some will head to San Juan, home to a large Dominican community. Others continue on to the mainland United States.

In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the Border Patrol sector responsible for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands processed 835 such migrants. The amount was down sharply from 1,951 the previous year.

Now the detentions, which represent only a portion of the travelers attempting the journey, appear to be rising again. This week alone, 109 migrants were apprehended.

On Friday, the Border Patrol captured 17 men and three women who had traveled in two boats to reach Aguada, Agent Victor C. Colón said. Several required medical attention for dehydration and hunger. As many as 35 more eluded authorities.

On Wednesday, the Border Patrol and Coast Guard captured 10 Dominicans near the beach at Aguadilla. They were among the estimated 50 passengers of a 27-foot boat. Also Wednesday, the Coast Guard, Customs Service and Puerto Rico Marine Police found a 19-foot boat holding 21 Dominicans, including a pregnant woman, on the water six nautical miles west of Cabo Rojo.

In the largest recent apprehension, the Coast Guard on Sept. 27 rescued 84 Dominicans packed into a 32-foot boat 76 miles northwest of Aguadilla.

"We're getting hit pretty hard," Colón said. "We're getting quite a few interceptions."

Authorities look for "push factors" to explain increases in migration. In the past, these have ranged from changing political or economic conditions back home to rumors of amnesty for illegal aliens in the United States. Authorities have not found an explanation for the current surge.

"We go through periods of increased migrant activity, and this seems to be one of those," Nunes said. "We're still out there patrolling and doing everything we usually do."

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