Calderon To Sign Electoral Reform Bill Despite Opposition Serrano To Cross Military Fence May 1st Govt Still Lobbying For Sec. 956 Tax Incentive Flood Victims Get Govt Aid Oso Blanco Prison To Close EPA Awards Comerios Recycling Program Soldier Who Died In Iraq Buried Mercado: Spanish-Language Bill Not A Priority
Calderon To Sign Electoral Reform Friday Despite Opposition
By Melissa B. Gonzalez Valentin of WOW News
April 24, 2003
JUANA DIAZ - The electoral reform bill will be signed into law Friday regardless of the controversy it raised last week at the Legislative Assembly, Gov. Sila Calderon said.
"I will sign this project tomorrow," the governor said during a Thursday press conference.
The electoral reform bill received bitter criticism from the New Progressive Party (NPP) and the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) delegations in the local House and Senate. They protested the rushed manner in which the governing Popular Democratic Party (PDP) was approving the bill, without giving time for nongubernatorial sectors of the island to discuss it.
Calderon defended her decision to approve the bill, while dodging questions of its fairness to minority political parties. She said the electoral reform bill is aimed at giving more transparency to the electoral process in Puerto Rico, "which up until now has unfortunately been stained by investors and people who after making political contributions believe they can influence government procedures."
"The final purpose of the reform is to eliminate or substantially reduce the private investment in political campaigns. This particular project is a step forward toward that goal," the governor said.
One public hearing, in which only State Elections Commission President Aurelio Gracia, Commonwealth Comptroller Manuel Diaz Saldaña, and Justice Deputy Secretary Miguel Santana were allowed to present their points of view on the issue, was all it took for the Legislature to approve it during Holy Week while the governor was off the island.
Both Diaz Saldaña and Gracia recommended that the Legislative Assembly further discuss the bill and approve it with the consensus of all the political parties.
PIP Sen. Fernando Martin, for instance, as well as NPP Sen. Norma Burgos, has said that the bill would do precisely the opposite as it proposes to match with public funds every dollar that each political party collects in private funds for political campaigns up to $4 million.
Right now the Electoral Law assigns $3 million in public funds for each of the three gubernatorial candidates of the island. Each political party is also allocated $600,000 for administrative expenses during election year. The PDP, PIP, and the NPP are allowed to raise up to $3 million in private funds for their gubernatorial candidate. However, they can only spend $3 million on a media campaign.
Political minorities on the island have protested that the electoral reform bill to be signed Friday penalizes the parties that dont have enough support from private investors.
Vieques Mayor To Cross Military Fence May 1
By Sandra Ivelisse Villerrael of Associated Press
April 24, 2003
Vieques Mayor Damaso Serrano said Thursday that with the gates open or closed, on May 1, he will cross the fence that for almost seven decades kept the civilian population out of most of the land of that island municipality used for U.S. Navy military practices.
"Whether [the gates] open or not, the people of Vieques will go in. The Vieques mayor will go in, be they closed or open," Serrano said in a press conference in San Juan at which he announced the activities starting Wednesday that will mark the celebration of the programmed exit of the Navy.
The Popular Democratic Party mayor affirmed that he sent a formal invitation to former Gov. Pedro Rossello to participate in the activities that are being organized, just as he did with the other former governors, Gov. Sila Calderon, and the legislators of all the parties.
"I understand that each one of them also forms part of this achievement," Serrano said. "This is an activity outside of party political lines. . .each one did their job, and we definitely have to recognize it."
He said he has not received confirmation from any of the former governors, but he said he was confident that Calderon will attend some of the activities.
Accompanied by a dozen artists who participated in the struggle for the demilitarization on Vieques that intensified four years ago, the mayor emphasized that although the claims for the return and decontamination of the land and the development of the island continue to be unattended, May 1 marks the first stage of the struggle, which would be the demilitarization.
The celebration activities, for which the central government assigned $75,000 and the Legislature another $30,000, will start with a vigil on Wednesday in front of the main gate of Camp Garcia.
A fireworks display at midnight will mark the arrival of the date that was originally stipulated in the agreement between former President Bill Clinton and Rossello.
At 5 a.m., the activity "Amanecer por la paz de Vieques" will be similar to the one held last year in the Third Millennium Park and singers Danny Rivera and Chucho Avellanet, among others, will participate.
The celebration will end at 8 p.m. with the concert "Cancion por Vieques," which is inspired by the music video of the same name, produced by singer-songwriter Tito Auger, vocalist of the group Fiel a la Vega.
Serrano said as part of the logistics coordinated by the Police, at least 50 officers will reinforce the agents posted in Vieques, while the Ports Authority will have all their boats available for passengers.
Local Government Predicts Recovery Of Economy
By Manuel Ernesto Rivera of Associated Press
April 24, 2003
Although Puerto Rico has not been able to receive any federal tax incentive, Gov. Sila Calderons administration stated Thursday that the Puerto Rican economy has shown signs of recovery during the first few months of the year.
However, the government will insist and continue to distribute public funds in lobbying to try to obtain the U.S. Congress approval of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code Section 956, according to Economic Development & Commerce Secretary Milton Segarra.
Section 956 is a federal tax benefit that the current administration is pushing to obtain the creation of more jobs on the island. Segarra could not immediately specify how much has been spent on lobbying efforts to achieve the approval of that measure.
He expressed optimism that the goal of approving the incentive will be approved.
"We are using all our resources to get a tax benefit again for Puerto Rico," he said.
He said Puerto Rico has enjoyed some type of federal tax benefit since 1921. By congressional stipulation, the benefits of Section 936 stopped in 1996.
As for the signs that point to the economy continuing to grow, Segarra said the unemployment rate experienced a slight reduction this month, while the number of people employed in March increased from 1.19 million to 1.23 million compared to the same month last year.
In March 2002, the unemployment rate was 12.3%, while in March of this year it was 12.1%, according to official figures.
"Were on a course, to our understanding ,that puts Puerto Rico in an adequate and favorable position to assure us that the economy will continue to grow," Segarra said in a press conference at the Industrial Development headquarters.
Government To Distribute Aid To Flooding Victims
April 24, 2003
Refrigerators, stoves, and mattresses will begin to be distributed Thursday to those families who lost their belongings as a result of the heavy rains that hit the island last weekend.
Family Secretary Yolanda Zayas said aid will be distributed to the victims at their homes and that private companies that donated the articles to be distributed would also help in transporting them.
Zayas estimated that the articles to be purchased could cost almost $540,000.
In total, there were 716 families who received emergency aid from the Family Department through a $3 million assignment signed by Gov. Sila Calderon on Saturday.
Meanwhile, the National Weather Service in San Juan has forecasted more showers for Thursday afternoon.
On Wednesday, heavy rains caused massive traffic jams and flooding in the metropolitan area. Among many of the highways blocked were the Martinez Nadal Expressway, the Roosevelt Avenue, and Barbosa Street.
The Puerto Nuevo River and numerous small creeks overflowed their banks.
Because of the saturated terrain and the rain falling on the island for the past eight days, authorities are on alert as landslides and more flooding could occur.
Oso Blanco Prison To Close
April 24, 2003
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- One of Puerto Rico's largest and oldest prisons will close in four months due to the high cost of renovations needed to bring it up-to-date with current standards, officials said.
The Oso Blanco prison in suburban San Juan, also known as the Rio Piedras Correctional Complex, has been in use for about 60 years. It is one of the main prisons in the U.S. territory's corrections system, which has been plagued by crowding, gang violence and drug dealing.
It is being closed in part because it has deteriorated below federal standards and also because the prison system has been fined about $250 million for violations since 1980, corrections undersecretary Rafael Santiago said Wednesday.
The fines arose from a 24-year-old class-action lawsuit, in which inmates complained of overcrowding and other deficiencies.
``The primary reason for the closing is the (prison's) structure,'' Santiago said.
For one thing, he said, Oso Blanco's cells are too small, and enlarging them could be very costly.
It was unclear when a new prison would be built or where the prison's current 1,000 inmates would be moved. It is the second-largest prison on the island.
In recent years, crowding has ceased to be a major problem with the construction of new lockups. The island's 51 correctional facilities have room for 17,000 prisoners and currently hold about 15,000.
EPA Awards Comerios Recycling Program
April 23, 2003
Comerios recycling program has been awarded the Environmental Quality Award of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the highest award given to the public by the environmental agency.
This is the first prize at a regional level that the municipality has received for its efforts in favor of the environment and recycling, according to a press release.
The municipal recycling project has been operating nonstop since 1999, dramatically increasing its recycling rate in the last two years. The program competed for the award in Region 2, which includes New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and others.
"Im filled with pride and satisfaction that our municipality has received this important award. This is an incredible reward for all the effort and dedication of all who participate in the program, and it serves to motivate many more to join this important work for the conservation and protection of our environment," Comerio Mayor Jose Santiago Rivera said.
U.S. Soldier Who Died In Iraq Buried In Puerto Rico, Military Still Investigating Death
By MANUEL ERNESTO RIVERA
April 23, 2003
Gil Mercado Román receives a Christian burial with full military honors Wednesday. Mercado Román was a Puerto Rican soldier who died in Iraq on April 13th due to circumstances still being investigated by the Pentagon.
ISABELA, Puerto Rico (AP) - A U.S. soldier who died of a self-inflicted gunshot in Iraq was buried to a 21-gun salute Wednesday in his parents' homeland of Puerto Rico.
A general presented folded American flags to the widow and parents of Army Spc. Gil Mercado, who died April 13 under circumstances that the U.S. military has yet to clarify.
About 100 people stood under drizzly skies and tossed roses on Mercado's flag-draped coffin as it was lowered into a grave.
An investigation into the 25-year-old's death will take about two months, said Brig. Gen. Jesus Mangual, who came from the Pentagon to represent the Army at the funeral.
"Suicide has not been ruled out, but I can't say anything further because it's part of the investigation," Mangual told reporters.
He said officials also are investigating the possibility that Mercado's weapon went off accidentally while he was cleaning it.
Mercado's half brother, Army Sgt. Arnaldo Rivera Roman, also was on active duty in Iraq and was given leave to attend the funeral.
"My brother was a good person and a lot of people really loved him," Rivera said.
A lone bugler played Taps and the report of rifles rang out as a line of soldiers fired the salute.
Mercado was born in Paterson, New Jersey, but returned to his parent's Caribbean homeland to attend high school.
He was buried in Isabela on the U.S. territory's northwest coast, where he spent his teenage years and where his divorced parents still live. The town is located 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of San Juan.
A cousin, Angela Ramirez Mercado, wept as she held a photograph of Mercado. She recalled him laughing often and said he also frequently played pranks. "He was always happy," she said.
Mercado's Colombian widow, Lucy, said Wednesday that she is certain her husband didn't kill himself.
Both Mercado and his half brother were based at the Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Mercado was assigned as a cook to the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment.
There are more than 53,000 Puerto Ricans in the U.S. armed forces, including 22,680 on active duty and 30,940 reservists, according to the Pentagon. The military has deployed about 6,000 Puerto Ricans for its campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mercado: Spanish-Language Bill Not A Priority
April 23, 2003
CATAÑO (AP) The approval of a law to establish Spanish as Puerto Ricos official language is not a priority of this administration, Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado said Wednesday.
"This is not a priority of this administration. We are working on the islands recovery," said Mercado while commenting on the actions of Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora, who said he will try to have a law approved to declare Spanish as the only official language of Puerto Rico during this four-year term.
Mercado said this matter has not been discussed in a legislative conference of the Popular Democratic Party and this matter will remain for now at the level of the Legislature.
He said there is a great distance between what the Senate president says and the approval of legislation on that issue.
"There is a big distance from that to the bills approval," Mercado said with some skepticism.
He said Gov. Sila Calderon has been clear about her position on this initiative and in his opinion, he doesnt believe that "this is a power struggle but a difference of criteria."
Fas Alzamora reaffirmed this week his commitment to making Spanish the only language of the government before this four-year term is finished.
Fas Alzamora emphasized that "the official language of a country is the one with which the government communicates with its people and vice versa" and in Puerto Rico, over 80% of the citizens dont understand or talk English.
This new law that would decree Spanish as the official language would repeal a law of 1993 approved by former Gov. Pedro Rossello that declares both Spanish and English as the official languages of Puerto Rico.
Rossellos law repealed another one approved in 1991 by former Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon that declared Spanish as the only official language of Puerto Rico and repealed a law approved in 1902 that established Spanish and English as the official languages.