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Heavy Rains Bring Floods … MLB Adds Millions To Local Economy…Viequenses Demand Transition Role, U.N. Asked To Investigate Land Contamination…P.R. Criticizes Cuba For Crackdown On Dissidents…House & Senate Pass Electoral Reform Bill…Vieques Residents Warned About Dangers In Navy Land

Heavy Rains Bring Floods To Parts Of Puerto Rico

By SANDRA IVELISSE VILLERRAEL of The Associated Press Writer

April 17, 2003
Copyright © 2003
ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved. 

LAS PIEDRAS, Puerto Rico (AP) - Heavy rains soaked parts of Puerto Rico and triggered floods that damaged at least 47 homes Thursday, officials said.

No one was reported injured, but shelters were opened for flood victims in several schools, officials said.

"This is a disaster," said 60-year-old resident Pedro Fragoso, watching the raging waters of the swollen Gurabo River in the small eastern town of Las Piedras.

Mayor Angel Pena said he was asking Gov. Sila Calderon to declare the community a disaster area. He said about 40 people had to be helped to safety due to the floods and landslides.

The worst damage initially appeared to have struck the northeastern community of Rio Grande, where at least 30 homes were flooded, said Oscar Sotomayor, an official with the State Emergency Management Agency.

At least 10 homes were flooded in nearby Luquillo, while at least two homes were damaged in the area of Naguabo _ near Las Piedras _ and at least five in southwestern Guanica, Sotomayor said.

An undetermined number of people, including children and the elderly, were trapped in homes cut off by flooding in Naguabo, the authorities said. Rescue team were dispatched to the area, said Yadira Aquino, a spokeswoman for the U.S. territory's emergency agency.

In southern Penuelas, a landslide brought down a wall that ran along a street, Aquino said. No one was reported injured.

A helicopter swooped down to rescue three employees of a hydroelectric plant in Naguabo who were trapped by high waters at the plant, Sotomayor said.

The three were "safe and sound," said Ada Torres Toro, a spokeswoman for the Electric Power Authority. The rushing Palmer River also ripped down two power poles in northeastern Rio Grande, Torres Toro said.

Downpours that started Wednesday night left as much as seven inches (18 centimeters) of rain in some areas, said Israel Matos, director of the National Weather Service on the Caribbean island.

Sections of roads and highways were reported flooded in spots throughout the island as several rivers overflowed, officials said.

Flights to the outlying islands of Vieques and Culebra also have been suspended due to rough weather, said Jose Guillermo Vaquero, director of the Ports Authority.

Major League Games Add Millions To Local Economy

April 17, 2003
Copyright © 2003
ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN (AP) – The Puerto Rican economy will receive an injection of approximately $8 million thanks to the series of Major League baseball games that started here last week, estimated Tourism Co. Executive Director Jose Suarez.

"We have been able to fill the stadium to capacity, which fills us with much enthusiasm, since the Tourism Co. is one of the event’s main sponsors," Suarez said in published reports.

In addition, he said "the reservations achieved for the moment [in hotels] and the multiplying effect that the season should bring an impact of over $8 million in the local economy."

Suarez also emphasized that the island’s exposure as a result of this sporting event will generate greater tourist movement in the near future.

The Montreal Expos are holding a series of 22 games in Puerto Rico. They will stay on the island until the first few days of May and will return to Puerto Rico for more games in September.

Viequenses Demand For Participation In Committee

April 17, 2003
Copyright © 2003
ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN (AP) – The so-called Transition Committee on Vieques Issues received numerous complaints for not including two representatives of the municipality among its members during the committee’s first public hearing on Vieques.

The 19 deponents also criticized the lack of information on matters the committee is discussing, according to published reports.

The committee promised to work with the U.S. Navy to try to return the land to the municipality and not the U.S. Department of the Interior.

"Possibly, the greatest concern and effort is to return to the Viequenses the land that was used for military practices. I ask you, beyond the anger, to enjoy this deed that is for you," said La Fortaleza Chief of Staff Cesar Miranda, committee chairman.

As for the request for participation, Miranda responded that there is effective communication through forums and the link of committee members with the state agencies involved.

Delegation Asks U.N. To Investigate Land Contamination On Vieques Bombing Range In Puerto Rico

April 16, 2003
Copyright © 2003
ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - A delegation of Puerto Ricans has asked the U.N. Human Rights Commission to investigate the contamination of lands on Vieques as the U.S. Navy prepares to leave the Puerto Rican island, a lawyer said Wednesday.

Four opponents of the Navy's decades of bombing said they made the request during a visit to Geneva earlier this month. They said they also asked the U.N. body to put pressure on the United States to turn over the lands to Puerto Rico's government - not the U.S. Interior Department as planned.

"The case of Vieques is not resolved," said human rights lawyer Linda Backiel, who attended one of the commission's hearings in Geneva on April 2.

She said turning over the lands to a U.S. agency prevents Vieques' people from using them for economic development, calling it a violation of human rights.

U.S. officials have said the 15,500 acres (6,200 hectares) on Vieques is to be turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make for the largest U.S. wildlife refuge in the Caribbean.

Backiel did not know when the U.N. Human Rights Commission would respond to the group's petitions.

Activists in the U.S. territory say the bombing exercises have harmed the environment and the health of Vieques' 9,100 residents. The Navy denies the claims.

Puerto Rico Criticizes Cuba For Crackdown On Dissidents

April 16, 2003
Copyright © 2003
ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Puerto Rico's secretary of state criticized Cuba's government Wednesday for a recent crackdown on dissidents, calling it a step backward for the region.

The U.S. Caribbean territory joined various countries and human rights groups in criticizing Cuba for sentencing 75 dissidents last week to prison terms ranging from 6 to 28 years.

The dissidents were sentenced on charges of working with the U.S. government to undermine the island's socialist system.

"It's pitiful that in the 21st century we keep seeing actions like these," Puerto Rican Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado said in a statement.

"What recently happened in Cuba represents a step back in the respect and defense of human rights that all in the Caribbean and Latin America are fighting for," he said.

Electoral Reform Bill Passes In Second Voting Round At House

By Melissa B. Gonzalez Valentin of WOW News

April 16, 2003
Copyright © 2003
WOW NEWS. All rights reserved. 

Following a six-hour session in which two separate votes had to be called in order for its approval, the House of Representatives passed 28 to 16 the controversial electoral reform bill proposing an increase in public funding from $9 million to $28.5 million for political campaigns.

The majority failed to obtain the 27 votes needed for its approval during a first round of votes. A second vote, called after a majority caucus to get Popular Democratic Party (PDP) legislators to the floor, had the favorable vote of New Progressive Party (NPP) Rep. Melinda Romero Donnelly.

The pro-statehood legislator admitted to not having been paying attention when the second vote was taking place. Therefore, when her name was called to issue her vote, she mistakenly voted in favor of a bill she had criticized so much in the previous round. Her mistake got her a standing ovation from members of the majority.

"I unconsciously voted in favor because I was paying attention to other things. I know it was my responsibility. However, I do want to make clear that, just as I had expressed before, I am totally against this bill," said Romero Donnelly, whose request for a reconsideration was denied by House Speaker Carlos Vizcarrondo.

Aside from Romero Donnelly's oversight, another eye-catching event during Wednesday's legislative proceedings was the House's failure to pass the electoral reform bill during the first voting round.

Although the bill - which had already been passed at the Senate - received 23 votes in favor and 17 against, it needed at least four more votes to be approved.

The four PDP representatives who didn't vote were PDP Reps. Luis Raul Torres, Roberto Cruz, Rafael Garcia Colon, and Lydia Mendez. Mendez didn't vote because she had arrived late due to a previous personal engagement. Sources said the other legislators left the floor on purpose so their vote could not be counted as they were against it. Following a caucus at the speaker’s office, the legislators entered the floor and issued a favorable vote.

The House speaker denied to an insisting press that he had tried to convince or coerce the remaining PDP legislators to vote in favor of the bill. However, Torres and Mendez gave an explicative vote in favor of the bill.

"I won't get into why they weren't present during the first voting round. What is important to me is that they were present in the second round and that this bill was approved," Vizcarrondo said.

Meanwhile, Mendez said that as chairwoman of the House Social Welfare Committee, she is aware of other pressing needs of the Puerto Rican people. She also acknowledged that increasing the funding for political campaigns could have waited and admitted that she voted in favor because it was a campaign promise of Gov. Sila Calderon.

Both the NPP and Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) minorities voted against the bill.

PIP Rep. Victor Garcia San Inocencio, as well as NPP Reps. Anibal Vega Borges--who had expressed himself in favor of the bill since last week--and Jennifer Gonzalez, presented an explicative vote against it, while PDP Rep. Jose Varela presented an explicative vote in favor of the bill.

During the extensive debate, Garcia San Inocencio had said the bill had been approved with the consensus of only one party. He echoed the objections of his PIP colleague at the Senate by saying that the electoral reform had been approved in a rush, thus sacrificing the right to equal participation.

"The bill has four negative effects in the political process: an increase in public spending, an increase in political investment, a destruction of the principles of equality, and the destruction of the principle of consensus," Garcia San Inocencio said.

House Vice President Ferdinand Perez and PDP Rep. Jorge Colberg Toro defended the bill. Perez even called his NPP counterparts hypocrites because despite their protestations, NPP representatives like Antonio Silva Delgado, for example, have admitted that if the bill is approved, they would have no choice but to accept the money in the upcoming general election.

"Since this bill is such bad news for them, why can't the NPP and the PIP announce right now that they won't accept this political financing plan? None of them will say it, but we will see them lined up at the State Elections Commission asking for money for their campaigns. This is a hypocrisy," Perez concluded.

Senate Passes Controversial Electoral Reform Bill

By Proviana Colon Diaz of WOW News

April 16, 2003
Copyright © 2003
WOW NEWS. All rights reserved. 

As expected, the controversial electoral reform bill was passed in the Senate on Tuesday night by a partisan vote following an afternoon-long debate in which the majority and the minority accused each other of failing to act in the best interest of the people.

The bill granting an increase from $9 million to up to $28.5 million in public funds to finance the electoral campaigns of the island’s three political parties was passed on the very same day that island taxpayers made last-minute arrangements to comply with their contributive duty.

Following a one-day hearing, in which two out of three witnesses opposed the speedy manner in which the important bill was being handled, Senate Government Committee Chairman Roberto Prats presented his favorable report on the bill to the floor.

The electoral reform bill suffered numerous grammar amendments but few substantial changes as it continues to grant political parties up to $11 million for the gubernatorial race and continues to grant public funds for the municipal campaigns of San Juan, Bayamon, Guaynabo, and Carolina.

Still, Prats argued that the New Progressive Party (NPP) minority should not be opposed to the bill as it includes most of the argument presented by its president, Carlos Pesquera, specifically his recommendation that 50% of the $600,000 fund for parties to operate, be allowed to be used for non-administrative purposes.

Prats did not accept, however, any of the Puerto Rican Independence Party’s (PIP) proposed amendments, specifically that which reduced to $2 million the maximum allowed to be spent by any party and that such amount be entirely covered by public funds.

In his turn to speak, Prats described it is as an intermediate bill between what was originally proposed and what was finally presented.

"I would have wanted very much for the debate to be on the complete campaign finance bill, but I recognize we were forced to take an intermediate path," Prats said.

Prats then made reference to published reports in which both NPP Senate and House Minority Leaders Kenneth McClintock and Anibal Vega Borges endorsed the bill "at least until last week."

In her turn, NPP Sen. Norma Burgos, however, argued that the delegation opposes the bill because aside from the fact that it was filed Friday at 5:45 p.m. and taken to the floor with barely enough time to evaluate it, the bill is entirely different from the one originally filed.

Burgos, who led the delegation out of Monday’s afternoon hearing, went on to say that the bill was taken to the floor without having reached a consensus.

"Where is the consensus? Did you forget to read or listen to the Commonwealth comptroller and State Elections commissioner, who both said they would favor it if there was a consensus between all parties?" Burgos asked.

This is the first time since the 1980s that a decision affecting the Electoral Law is reached without an agreement between all political parties.

PIP Sen. Fernando Martin objected the majority’s decision to accuse the minority of being an impediment for the bill to be approved. The senator then questioned the speedy manner in which it was approved.

"Why don’t we take out the component that is in debate - the money, which will not be used until next year. Wasn’t the objective to reduce the private donations; wasn’t the objective to cut down expenses? This is a bill by all means incompatible to what was the original idea," Martin said.

Not surprisingly, as his behavior has grown to be erratic and at times even offensive, independent Sen. Sergio Peña Clos headed the biggest discussion that occurred during the course of the over three-hour long debate. His loud voice, which continued to be heard on the floor despite having his microphone turned off, had nothing to do with the bill in question but rather over his right to speak.

McClintock objected to Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora’s decision to grant Peña Clos a 15-minute long term to speak, while a seven-member delegation got only 45 minutes.

Peña Clos argued that McClintock knew "nothing about the rules and regulations" of the Senate despite being minority leader for the past two years and went on to call him Saddam Hussein.

The microphones of both legislators were turned off, and Fas Alzamora sustained his decision to grant equal time to both Peña Clos and Martin.

U.S. Agency Warns About Dangers In Navy Land In Vieques

April 16, 2003
Copyright © 2003
ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN (AP) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned about the possible danger in most of the land in Vieques that will be transferred soon by the U.S. Navy to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The agency’s Vieques manager, Oscar Diaz, told Vieques residents during a town hall meeting Tuesday that public access will only be granted to the Caracas and La Chiva beaches, also known as the Red Beach and Blue Beach, respectively.

Diaz added that the areas with the most danger because of unexploded explosives are those areas where anti-Navy demonstrators established temporary camp sites in an attempt to halt military practices.

"The danger is much greater there because of the large number of bombs that have not been detonated," Diaz said.

He doubted that the Navy would evade cleaning the area but noted that it would be a long time before Vieques residents are able to enjoy them.

Meanwhile some 20 agents assigned to the agency will be watching the area to warn of possible dangers in the zone.

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