2003: A "Complex And Difficult" Year

by John Marino

January 2, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Pedro Rosselló returned to Puerto Rican politics in 2003, ripping the leadership of the New Progressive Party from Carlos Pesquera in a primary battle, while Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá survived turmoil in the Popular Democratic Party to become its gubernatorial candidate and president heading into 2004.

Gov. Calderón told reporters last week that 2003 was a "complex and difficult year." Halfway through it, saying she wanted a "more balanced life," Calderón announced she would not seek reelection. The move sapped her political power and sparked a wave of resignations within her administration that continue into the present. But the governor last week pointed to her administration's accomplishments, and spoke confidently about its plans to retake management of the island's troubled water utility. She said with some justification that much of her administration's work - its Special Communities and After School programs, and shepherding the island through moderate economic growth -- had been buried behind the barrage of daily newspaper headlines and other media reports that tended to focus on sexier political developments and other dramatic events. Some, such as the war in Iraq, were beyond the administration's control, while others, the attempt to push Ferdinand Mercado from secretary of State to Supreme Court chief justice, were very much of its own making.

Meanwhile, the Puerto Rican Independence Party pushed once again its long-time leader Rubén Berríos as gubernatorial candidate. But since the PIP 's top spot on the ticket is nothing but a sacrificial lamb, the move could signal a healthy pragmatism, with the party running its youngest and brightest members - such as Vice President María de Lourdes Santiago and environmental adviser Jorge Fernández Porto - for legislative seats they actually have a shot at winning.

The reshuffling of Puerto Rico's political debate was one of the top stories of the year, but it wasn't the biggest. That undoubtedly goes to the May 1 Navy exit from Vieques, with all its ramifications.

Despite heavy pressure from San Juan to exit early, and just as steady pressure from some D.C. sectors to ditch the exit altogether and try to hold on to Vieques, the Bush White House and Navy stuck to an agreement brokered by the Rosselló-Clinton administrations that first etched the May 1, 2003 in writing. Many point to the event as a watershed event in Puerto Rican political empowerment; while others worry that the scars Vieques has left behind will permanently damage Washington's view of Puerto Rico.

The May 1st rioting that marred the celebration of the Navy's exit show tension surrounding the issue is still razor sharp. And the designation of Vieques, its surrounding waters and the neighboring island of Culebra as a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency means that Vieques will remain a major issue in Puerto Rico-U.S. discussions in the coming years.

The Navy exit from Vieques, and the subsequent closure of Naval Station Roosevelt Roads in Ceiba, is the best evidence yet that Puerto Rico's strategic importance as a military outpost is over for the United States.

That fact sparks emotions on the island from those standing on all sides of the issue. But that aside, the development presents an opportunity for Washington to address the issue of Puerto Rico's political status, if islanders, indeed, want that to happen.

But while Vieques said something about the loss of strategic importance Puerto Rico has to the United States, the war in Iraq presented the island a perfect showcase for a demonstration of its commitment to national defense nonetheless. In the largest call-up in island history, thousands of National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers were deployed for active duty, with many going overseas to Iraq and surrounding nations. Army officials made a point of saying that sending its people to war was the strongest show of commitment the island could be make, as well as a whole new paradigm to gauge Puerto Rico's military importance to the United States.

The past year burned with more cases of corruption involving officials linked to the past Rosselló administration, as well as with a series of gaffes and blunders by the Calderón administration and the Popular Democratic Party. Former House speaker and Republican official Edison Misla Aldarrondo continued to get into more trouble, while other previous administration officials, like former Juvenile Institutions Administrator Miguel Rivera, joined the growing number of those indicted for corruption by federal officials.

The current administration, meanwhile, was chastised by the U.S. Department of State for misrepresenting Puerto Rico's sovereign powers to foreign countries, failed to spark Congressional action on its 956 proposal and suffered more personnel changes as a wave of resignations continued. The ugly, fruitless battle to get Ferdinand Mercado a Supreme Court seat marked a low point for the administration.

But far outstripping these reports in importance is the collapse of the 10-year, $3.8 billion contract with Ondeo and government plans to retake control of its troubled water utility.

A whole lot of finger pointing is going on, but the truth is the water system is so screwed up, the only option is for the government to fix it. Private industry, it seems, could profit from the troubled utility, but at a cost that would ensure it would not get fixed.

It's a challenge and opportunity for both the NPP and PDP, which each equally contributed over the years to the demise of the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority through giveaways to unions and political cronies, while utterly avoiding the messy business of waterworks maintenance. Calderón said last week that her plan is to break ASA into regions, each with a chief who would oversee service standards, and to appoint regional and agency directors to six-year terms to divorce them from the political process.

If she pulls it off by the end of next year, if the transition is smooth and a long-term ASA improvement plan is instituted, it would rehabilitate the tattered image of the Calderón administration that the instability of 2003 has wrought.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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