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The Laundromat


March 20, 2003
Copyright © 2003 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Dirty laundry ought to be washed at home. Washing it in public for political purposes is incredibly damaging to Puerto Rico’s image.

Last week, Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vila tied a clothesline across the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and put out to dry some of Puerto Rico’s nastiest, smelliest, most soiled undergarments.

In an unprecedented act of political pettiness--or political desperation--Puerto Rico’s representative in the U.S. Congress delivered before the House chamber a scathing attack on the Rossello administration and indeed on the whole "Statehood Party," as he constantly referred to the New Progressive Party (NPP), for acts of corruption and thievery committed while in office.

He went at it with gusto, appearing to relish the opportunity to show his colleagues how, according to him, millions of dollars of federal funds went to pay bribes, political patronage, and even lobbying efforts in Congress in favor of statehood. For eight years, he seemed to say, Puerto Rico’s government was a den of thieves. It was a terribly irresponsible tirade that will hurt Puerto Rico’s image, and possibly have repercussions in federal funding, for years to come.

"Foul," cried NPP politicians and even some independent commentators, noting there’s no historical precedent for such a shameful misuse of congressional debate for obvious local partisan political chicanery.

They’re right. The U.S. Congress is no place to ventilate local political controversies.

Many U.S. states have even longer-standing traditions of raw, bloody, hand-to-hand local political warfare than Puerto Rico, yet it wouldn’t occur to their congressional delegations to purposefully make the nation’s Congress a witness to it.

Acevedo Vila retorted that he wasn’t playing local partisan politics but, rather, was responsibly discharging his duty to inform his fellow members of Congress about the criminal misuse of federal funds by the last administration.

Bull. Acevedo Vila knows no thinking person in Puerto Rico would swallow such hogwash. His oration in Congress last week was indeed raw, unadulterated partisan politics. But that’s not the reason for this column.

No, Acevedo Vila deserves the strongest condemnation and repudiation not for playing local partisan politics in Congress but because what he said painted a distorted picture of Puerto Rico that is incredibly damaging to both the island and its economic development efforts.

Yes, there were a handful of people--out of 250,000 government employees--who committed acts of corruption during the last administration. They are now in prison paying for their sins, as they should be. That doesn’t mean Puerto Rico’s government was a den of thieves. You see, some people in La Perla do shoot up heroin, and some people in Puerto Rico do practice animal sacrifices in religious rituals, and some people on the island don’t like being part of the U.S.--except for the federal checks they cash each month. Yet none of it makes the shameful, disgraceful, distorted, out-of-proportion feature article in this month’s National Geographic magazine highlighting those facts about our island a true depiction of Puerto Rico.

In fact, the National Geographic article was very harmful to the island’s image around the world and to our economic development efforts. The Calderon administration itself--among many eloquent, concerned voices from the island--issued the strongest possible condemnation of the article: it cancelled all pending paid advertising in the otherwise highly respected publication. (By the way, no freedom of the press issues in this case, we suppose.)

But make no mistake about it, this past week at least, Acevedo Vila and the editors of National Geographic were birds of a feather.

By all means, do perform this simple test. Read the National Geographic article. Then ask yourself, "If I were a potential tourist with no other knowledge about the vast majority of good people in Puerto Rico, would I now want to visit the island?"

Then read Acevedo Vila’s harangue in Congress last week and ask yourself, "If I were a member of Congress, would I now want to send any federal money to Puerto Rico." The answer in both cases, we’re sure, would be NO.

It’s not a matter of politics. It’s a matter of economic development. Puerto Rico’s image is negatively affected and our economic development efforts are seriously hindered by the dissemination of distorted information depicting our island as a Third World banana republic, regardless of who puts out the garbage. We may have no control over how an independent publication depicts Puerto Rico to the world, but our elected government officials, who are supposed to look after Puerto Rico’s best interests in the broadest sense, ought to know better.

In fact, the outrage of Puerto Rico government officials last week over the publication of the National Geographic article rang somewhat hypocritical in view of the track record of top officials in this administration when it comes to airing Puerto Rico’s dirty laundry in public.

Last November, for example, former Economic Development & Commerce Secretary Ramon Cantero Frau gave a master class on how NOT to promote Puerto Rico’s economic development.

A top securities firm in New York, Brean Murray, had organized a high-level institutional investor conference in San Juan. A number of top stateside institutional investors--people whose recommendations on what stocks to buy affect billions of dollars of investment decisions--came to see presentations by the CEOs of Puerto Rico’s top public companies--all financial holding companies, like Popular Inc., Doral Financial Corp., FirstBank Corp., and others.

These top executives of Puerto Rico’s largest companies knew how important it was to make a good impression on this powerful group of top investment decision makers. In other words, for Puerto Rico’s sake--no less than for the best interest of their companies--they were determined to make the best possible impression about Puerto Rico and about the company they represented on these very important investors from New York, Chicago, and other stateside investment centers.

The banks’ presentations were preceded by a morning panel that covered a wide array of economic and financial topics on Puerto Rico. Kicking off the panel’s discussion was a presentation by Puerto Rico’s then economic czar, Cantero Frau.

To the jaw-dropped amazement of the audience, Puerto Rico’s top salesman opened his presentation with a 10-minute scathing attack on the "corrupt" Rossello administration, explaining in detail how, when the new administration was sworn into office, it had found a bankrupt government where public funds had been squandered by an administration of unscrupulous, corrupt criminals. In short, Cantero painted before this select audience of outside investors a picture of Puerto Rico that made our island sound like a Third World banana republic where no rational person would consider investing a dime.

I had the uncomfortable privilege of moderating that panel. From my vantage point on the stage, I could see the blank faces of top local corporate executives who seemed to be wondering, "How exactly does our Secretary of Economic Development & Commerce think this tirade of local partisan politics helps us position our companies, and Puerto Rico, as an attractive investment option for these top stateside investors?" How, indeed?

On that occasion Cantero appeared unable to discern between a stump speech good in a local political barricade and the hard job of selling Puerto Rico to potential investors.

Perhaps he shouldn’t be blamed. After all, he must have taken an early cue from his former boss, Gov. Calderon herself.

She set the tone for what was to be the reckless laundromat of her administration when, before the end of her first year in office, she addressed an international crowd of government officials and private-sector executives from the whole Western Hemisphere at the Miami Conference on the Caribbean & Latin America.

In what has become a trait of her administration, Gov. Calderon served her international audience a basketful of Puerto Rico’s dirtiest laundry, leading off, of course, with the rampant corruption of the Rossello administration that, according to her, left Puerto Rico bankrupt. Again, this isn’t politics. Even taking the governor’s words at face value, how airing such dirty laundry in public helps build up Puerto Rico’s image before an international gathering of potential tourists, investors, and partners is beyond our comprehension.

Promoting Puerto Rico’s economic development is a tough job. Airing the island’s local partisan political dirty laundry to the world doesn’t make it one bit easier. Our advice: Let’s keep the political rhetoric at home.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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