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Calderon's Critics Say She Focused On Details, Ignored The Bigger Picture
June 29, 2003
FAJARDO, Puerto Rico -- You wouldn't know Gov. Sila Calderon was now off the campaign trail and heading toward retirement as she stepped off a helicopter to speak at a luxury oceanside resort on Puerto Rico's eastern tip.
Late as usual, she rushed through the crowd of applauding kids, planting a kiss or two for the requisite photo opportunity, then made her way to the podium.
Dressed in a beige suit with gold buttons, she was trying to convince the island's movers and shakers at the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce convention that hard times are behind.
She highlighted accomplishments -- routing out public corruption, dealing with the economic downturn -- and promised to tackle long-term problems by creating jobs and battling poverty.
But with Calderon announcing last month that she would step down as Puerto Rico's governor in 2004, this stop was aimed as much at framing her legacy as setting any agenda.
For some in and outside the ballroom, her explanations and promises rang too little, too late. That widespread skepticism, her critics say, is among the real reasons she has turned over leadership of her Popular Democratic Party to a younger generation, with Jose Alfredo Hernandez Mayoral at the top of the ticket.
"What was missing was a road map early on in the administration, and a lot of time was lost and [it] kept the economy from reactivating faster," said Jose Joaquin Villamil, the chamber's president, who hosted the governor. "All energies were dedicated to those other problems, and that was a big mistake."
The laundry list coming from the podium seemed to be those of a good administrator or of a chief executive officer. It was clearly not the speech of a visionary.
And critics of Puerto Rico's first female governor say that was precisely her problem.
Calderon, 60, grandmother of six, promised some tough love when she took office in January 2001, something voters at the polls seemed to want after eight years of grand, multibillion-dollar plans that also were rife with public corruption, free-wheeling government spending and increased public debt. Even her critics give her points for fighting corruption.
But a demanding public in the island's furiously churning political environment has proven to want more in these times when, like in the mainland United States, unemployment is climbing and stocks are falling. In a place where leaders are measured by how quickly they try to move the island ahead, Calderon's obsession with reining things in draws fire.
"You always have to sweep the living room and iron the clothes, but we can't say that here is this new room we didn't have before in the house," said Jose Garriga Pico, a political science professor who will run for Senate in the pro-statehood New Progressive Party. "There's nothing of any importance. Things just stopped, there is no movement. And it's a function of her management style. Maybe it's a style adequate for City Hall, but not for a governor."
DEDICATED TO REFORM
For some, it's as if Calderon never let go of her old jobs.
She got her first taste of public service as special assistant in charge of economic development for the first term of Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon, her anointed successor's father, from 1973 until 1976. When her old boss became governor again in 1985, he named her chief of staff and then secretary of state until she returned to the private sector in 1989 to become a Citibank executive and serve on the boards of several high-profile corporations.
Using a theme she would repeat in 2000's gubernatorial campaign, her call for government reform and cleaning up corruption got her elected mayor of the capital city of San Juan in 1996, the first time all three candidates were women. She was known for marathon workdays tackling the city's problems, such as trash pickup and high crime.
Now she deals with the island's $23 billion budget and much bigger problems. But, it seems, her approach never broadened. Her calendar is filled with the functionary side of governing -- marathon meetings to discuss going after those who don't pay child-support payments, how to wipe out drug-trafficking dens, or how to bolster the finances of the ailing health-care reform.
Some can't -- or won't -- keep up the pace. More than 80 of her Cabinet and sub-Cabinet level appointees have walked out the door in the past two years, and a few were even pushed out.
"She's a very demanding person that always wants things done quickly and well," said Hermenegildo Ortiz, a former transportation and public-works secretary during the Hernandez Colon years and the person who ran Calderon's platform during her mayoral campaign.
"It's a very micromanagement government style, very into the details, and not so much dealing with the direction and the strategy," added Ortiz, who quit in protest last year as Calderon's president of the Planning Board when he felt pressure to consider projects faster. "She wants to particpate in the details of many decisions. Some people who I've talked to don't like that."
The "Sila Shuffle," critics call it, where the revolving-door of aides and lengthy talks about problems seems to have the government taking one step forward and two steps back. And, from the start, she ground to a halt a bevy of big projects started by her predecessor, Pedro Rossello. She halted projects like the Urban Train, a new convention center complex, and a new coliseum until she studied all contracts to make sure corruption or excessive costs weren't in the picture.
"The difference is that the projects that were the priority of the past administration were monumental projects in the San Juan metropolitan area, aside from a health reform that left our people at the brink of bankruptcy, that was built on finances that were a fallacy," Calderon said.
Her priorities, she said in a recent interview, served all Puerto Ricans.
"It's not a coliseum, not a big shell-like sculpture like they wanted to spend millions on before, not an Urban Train that could help a certain amount of people here in the metro area," she said. "It's work for all of Puerto Rico, water for all, public-order ordinances everywhere, the rehabilitation of urban centers, the development hubs throughout the island."
AFFECTING SOCIAL CHANGE
What could be her biggest disadvantage is that -- unlike a bridge or a road -- her signature work is something most people can't see.
Like a mother telling siblings that they must help their younger brothers and sisters, Calderon stands before a joint session of the House and Senate in every State of the Commonwealth speech, asking the public for compassion. In the same breath, the woman the opposition keeps trying to paint as a rich elitist -- a tactic that backfired in the 2000 election -- demands support for the $1 billion she set aside for physical improvements and empowerment programs in hundreds of poor communities across the island.
"Her work is more of a social work, and, as such, you don't see it right away. It's going to be measured in the long term," said Felicita Maldonado, 53, a retired Head Start teacher who is now an activist in San Juan's Cantera section, where fewer children now play in the nearby creek infested with raw sewage because of Calderon's Special Communities program.
"I think criticism against her is unfair," Maldonado said. "We work with families to change their way of thinking . . . [and have them break] free of their dependence."
Critics also point to her relations with other government leaders outside of the island.
For example, Calderon seemed more at ease with the presidents of Panama, Costa Rica and Dominican Republic, whom she hosted in these two short years, than with President George Bush, who never gave her an official visit.
Bolstered by millions in lobbying dollars, she made some friends in Congress, but not enough to get new tax breaks designed to keep U.S. corporations from moving manufacturing jobs elsewhere.
And, in some circles in Washington, she was gaining a reputation as being anti-American, particularly for her tough rhetoric against any more bombing in the offshore island municipality of Vieques, which the U.S. Navy mostly owned since World War II until last May 1. Rossello's close Democratic ties made him seem like an establishment governor legitimately standing up to the Navy to defend his residents' civil rights.
Calderon, who is not affiliated with either U.S. party and not particularly active in gubernatorial associations, seemed like a Washington outsider in the Vieques controversy, an image bolstered by her rhetoric of Puerto Rico as a "partner," rather than part of, the United States. So she ably used Republican surrogates like New York Gov. George Pataki to exert influence on the White House, but that didn't keep pro-statehood critics from labeling her anti-American. Some call that hogwash.
"Sila Calderon was a victim of a militant nationalism that arose in Puerto Rico against the military," Garcia Passalacqua added. "She didn't cause it and wasn't responsible for it. How is someone who thinks the colony doesn't exist going to be anti-American? It's just pure political propaganda."
PRIVATE VS. PUBLIC LIFE
Along with the politics comes a fair share of gossip, and Calderon has made it easy.
Divorced one year into her term, she now seems to be seeing her former economic development secretary Ramon Cantero Frau, who she just calls "a dear friend."
They've been seen together at the movies, at dinner, and television-news crews have even caught a silhouette shot of them kissing on the colonial streets of Old San Juan. Her denial of the existence of a relationship just gives more fodder to the rumor mill. One local television producer has taken it to the extreme, `having an actress portray her "outgoing" personality under the saying "The Gov, loose like a shoelace." It's a hit.
But within the winks and the gossip, serious issues emerge.
She named Cantero Frau to head up the $1 billion Special Communities Trust, raising more than a few eyebrows. When asked repeatedly about the potential conflict of interest, she replies with a curt "no" or says she won't talk about it.
"If Rossello had appointed [his wife] . . . to do something like that, it would have been scandalous," said Garriga Pico.
Those questions won't go away anytime soon -- and neither will doubts about whether she will finally help get the economy rolling again or tackle the island's crime and drug-trafficking problem. She vows to focus on these two issues -- in addition to her efforts to help the poor -- in the year and a half she has left in the Governor's Mansion.
And she says that, in the next 18 months, she'll cut lots of ribbons and show some of her detractors that they spoke too soon.
"You can't compare just two years of my administration to all eight years of the previous one," she said, sitting calmly on the 19th century couch in the Governor's Mansion. "All the work and foundation that was so hard for us to put down in the first two years will start taking off now. Now is the time of the harvest."
Her critics, her friends at the Chamber she spoke to over steak and wine, just about everyone is waiting to see.