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In Puerto Rico, Successor May Be No Farther Than Fingertip

Iván Román

June 1, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Now that's what's called democracy at the touch of a finger.

Gov. Sila Calderón's announcement 10 days ago that she would not run for another term changed the island's political landscape overnight. Literally.

In 24 hours, almost to the minute, the Popular Democratic Party's 300-plus general council was voting to endorse a "new generation" of leaders headed by José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral, 41, to run for governor next year.

But it went that smoothly because, as she bowed out, she endorsed Hernández Mayoral, the son of former three-term governor Rafael Hernández Colón, and a slate of young faces almost in the same breath. Like a godfather -- or godmother -- she pointed to the guy who had her blessing.

That's what's known locally as dedocracia -- a play on the word democracy with the word for finger, dedo, mixed in.

Pro-statehood advocates pounced on the dizzying events to say the PDP was "undemocratic." Former pro-independence legislator David Noriega called it "an authoritarian decision common to [political] dynasties rife throughout Third World countries."

Puerto Rican Independence Party Rep. Víctor García San Inocencio added, "The PDP has to stop the hemorrhaging and close the wound quickly, but it may be creating many problems and rancor by the way it's handling this."

Even Calderón's faithful running mate, current Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, seemingly upset that he was passed up for the former rival he beat in the 2000 primary, said things were moving too fast.

"I think there should be a dialogue among all of us who are going to assume the party's leadership," Acevedo Vilá said. "This is a time for reflection and dialogue."

But his words fell on deaf ears as his party fell back on old habits. For the PDP, the dedocracia has been a tried and not-always-so-true way the party's maximum leader chooses its next gubernatorial candidate. It has not always worked smoothly and is a sure-fire target for critics.

Luis Muñoz Marín, the island's first elected governor and considered the father of the PDP, started the tradition when he chose Roberto Sánchez Vilella as his successor in 1964. The party's general assembly endorsed him, and he won at the polls.

But when Muñoz Marín selected someone else to run for governor in the 1968 election after a tiff with Sánchez, the governor started the People's Party to stay on the ballot. They split the vote, allowing the pro-statehood New Progressive Party's first major victory with cement magnate Luis A. Ferré in the governor's seat.

Muñoz Marín then chose Hernández Colón to run in 1972, who in turn, after three terms and out of office for eight years, endorsed Calderón, his former chief of staff and secretary of state, to run for governor in 2000. Then little more than halfway into her term, Calderón backed her former boss' son, Hernández Mayoral.

Mindful of how jarring this could be to the growing pool of independent voters, Calderón said that picking Hernández Mayoral was not her doing. Analysts say the young lawyer's father still holds sway over the PDP's "rafaelista" wing, some of whom still resent Calderón for trying to force voters into backing Acevedo Vilá over Hernández Mayoral in that 2000 primary.

"I didn't choose this," Calderón said in a recent interview. "That was a clamor from the rank and file of the populares."

There has never been a primary in Puerto Rico in either party for the gubernatorial nomination. In both parties, shunned candidates formed their own political groups and lost at the polls.

But former pro-statehood Gov. Pedro Rosselló is set to face party president Carlos Pesquera in a primary in November. As NPP leaders sneer at the dedocraci's stifling of dissent, they have been trying to persuade Pesquera to withdraw and avoid a blistering primary.

Rosselló's critics say his plan to ignore Pesquera shows an arrogance and sense of entitlement more typical of those PDP "godfathers" whom statehooders love to bash. And it's no secret that when Rosselló announced he wasn't running for re-election in 2000, Pesquera, former transportation secretary in his Cabinet, emerged out of the NPP's emergency assembly as its gubernatorial candidate because he was Rosselló's man.

"I hear a lot of people out there grasping at straws in their criticism," said José Ronaldo Jarabo, former PDP House speaker. "The NPP has more serious problems than the PDP does."

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