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Round 1: Answering Opening Bell, Candidates Come Out Swinging

By Kevin Mead

January 9, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

With the last round of Puerto Rico's marathon holiday season winding down in the first week of January, political candidates began gearing up their campaigns. While making some tentative steps toward laying down their campaign planks the main candidates came out of their corners punching.

After seeing a few well placed personal jabs, San Juan Archbishop Robert Gonzalez Nieves stepped into the ring and decided it was time to set some ground rules in what is sure to be a testy political year. He dedicated his entire Three Kings Day message to outlining 10 principles to live by to have peace and unity in an election year.

"Tell the truth, don't lie, be sincere and forthright," was Nieves first admonishment, citing the need for political parties to map out their "real intentions" in setting an achievable platform of goals. No pie in the sky ideas, please.

Gonzalez called for politicians to limit themselves to disciplined dialogue and avoid personal attacks. Along the same lines, the archbishop called for a respect for one's adversary saying "humiliating a human being is not justified by saying it is just politics."

He urged those in the race to "promote tolerance, legitimate diversity and the culture of education and reflection through the electoral process to contribute to the unity of our people."

Gonzalez said candidates should push for peace, not violence "which has filtered into "everything we do." While acknowledging that physical violence is rare in local politics he said words can be used as weapons as well. He also called on politicians to "be committed to serving and not being served" which will "open the doors for social well being" and keep a lid on corruption.

The archbishop directed his message to campaigners to lead by example but stressed that the 10 principles should be adopted by the public as well.

Predictably, local politicos opted not to stop slinging mud and continued to launch a steady stream of rhetoric. With 20 murders logged in just the first seven days of 2004, the public seems to have missed at least part of Gonzalez's message as well.

Having stayed in their respective corners for much of the holiday season, the top-tier candidates wasted little time in mixing it up.

Resident Commissioner and Popular Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate Anibal Acevedo Vila picked away at a familiar target, arguing that his New Progressive Party rival has not agreed to debate "because he is scared."

He reiterated his willingness to debate former Gov. Pedro Rossello monthly on any issue. After initial debate plans were scrapped late last year Rossello has said he will wait until his campaign platform is in place before squaring off against the PDP candidate.

Perhaps seeking to distance himself a bit from what many see as an administration that has lost its bearings Acevedo Vilá also acknowledged that the Calderón government's anti-crime efforts have been ineffective.

"It's an area where there is still plenty to do," he said, adding that fight against crime has been hampered by high turnover at the top of a Police Department that is destined to have at least four different superintendents in as many years.

With Superintendent Victor Rivera slated to step down by mid-month Calderon has yet to name his replacement.

Even Acevedo Vila's apparent praise of the current administration came out as an attack on Rossello. He said the first three years of Calderon's term have erased the mistakes of the previous administration and paved the way for the future of Puerto Rico.

"These three years. . . have basically been years of building the foundation and now we are ready to talk and to build a future for Puerto Rico," Acevedo Vilá said, adding that "maybe expectations were too high."

The resident commissioner also sought to cast a little light on the island's murky status issue. The idea that status is a priority in a Congress and White House growing increasingly weary of commonwealth is "one of the biggest myths in Puerto Rico" and "is totally false," he said.

Acevedo Vila went on to characterize the White House committee on status as an election year "favor" made up of "third-level bureaucrats without any real insight on Puerto Rico," according to the EFE news service.

He said, if elected, he would go to the Puerto Rican public within six months of taking office to see what mechanism they prefer to address the status issue. He prefers a constituent assembly while his New Progressive Party rivals have signaled a willingness to work with Washington in their push for statehood.

Meanwhile, Rossello picked up the education issue saying he would champion early and continuing education if he is returned to La Fortaleza. He argued that the island's current education system virtually ignores learning until kindergarten even though studies have shown that the pre-school years are the most vital for "intellectual growth." He said public policy must reflect this "scientific reality" while student should be given incentives to keep learning beyond high school or an undergraduate degree.

He also criticized the violence in the island's public schools, its lack of teachers and the scant focus paid to the teaching of English to public school students.

Since the November primary, education has been a key issue for both candidates. Particularly for Rossello, whose previous administration as marred by a more than $4 million kickback and embezzlement scheme at the Education Department under convicted former secretary Victor Fajardo. Rossello has staunchly denied any knowledge of the scheme while it was going on.

Not to be outdone, Rossello did get off a few jabs of his own during the week and sought to portray Acevedo Vila's ties to Calderon as tighter than portrayed in the media and by the resident commissioner.

He called the handling of the failed nomination of Ferdinand Mercado to the Supreme Court "the greatest cover-up in the history of Puerto Rico." Comparing the Education case to the Mercado controversy, Rossello said there was no comparison.

"This wasn't that they didn't know. They accuse me of something I wasn't aware of, but they knew about this," he said in a radio interview.

He went on to characterize Calderon's decision not to seek re-election as an acknowledgment of the "ineptitude and ineffectiveness of her term."

But it was the San Juan mayoral race that was shaping up as the biggest brawl, with NPP Mayor Jorge Santini and PDP candidate Eduardo Bhatia throwing haymakers on a variety of issues. This is the much-anticipated rematch between the two, after Santini took the 2000 fight by more than 3,600 votes.

So far, the most heated trash-talking has centered on trash pick-up, with both candidates pointing fingers on the capital city's less than tidy appearance. They charged each other with politicizing such a sticky issue to curry favor with voters in an election year.

But shortly after the archbishop's Three Kings Day call for a clean campaign, both bidders signaled a willingness to keep it above the belt.

For about 10 seconds at least.

"I am not going to contribute to the rising violence with violent language or violent acts in a campaign," Santini said, pledging to take the high road and run on ideas.

Bhatia responded by saying he too would campaign on the strength of his still unannounced platform, saying they should simply debate the issues.

By Wednesday the Santini-Bhatia debate swirled around who had landed the first low-blow in a campaign that is sure to see enough mud thrown to clog a landfill.

But hey, it's just politics.

Kevin Mead is assistant city editor of The San Juan Star. He can be reached at

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