The Big Story Of 2004

by John Marino

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

. The big story of this new year in Puerto Rico won't be told until the elections of November.

Will Pedro Rosselló, with his promises of government reform, large infrastructure projects and renewed action on the status front, return the pro-statehood New Progressive Party to power? Or will Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, a savvy political survivor underestimated by his opponents, pull off the political upset of the year and retain power for his Popular Democratic Party?

Don't expect any predictions from this commentator, who has learned during his decade of covering Puerto Rican politics that anything is possible, and that both candidates from the major parties have an equal shot at La Fortaleza.

An interesting part of the equation, as always, will be the impact that the Puerto Rican Independence Party has in the elections. Its perennial candidate, Rubén Berríos, has no chance of winning. But the manner in which he debates his two opponents could have a big impact on the contest.

Part of the reason that Gov. Calderón took power in 2001 was her successful wooing of independentista votes with a tough stance on Vieques and nationalist rhetoric on the status front.

This time around, however, the Calderón administration's inaction on status, coupled with its failure to win any new concessions on Vieques, could spark heated PIP criticism, which would work in the NPP's favor.

Rosselló has successfully united the statehood movement behind his candidacy after his solid trouncing of Carlos Pesquera in the November gubernatorial primary.

He also has a record of achievement during his first two terms in office that will help him win votes. He oversaw dramatic highway improvements, broke ground on the massive Urban Train and Superaqueduct projects and undertook substantial government reforms, privatizing government agencies which competed openly in the private sector and eliminated burdensome commerce and labor laws.

That bustling activity may look even better to many voters who, according to opinion polls, general believe that Calderón's performance in office has been lackluster.

That fact that the Calderón administration has yet to complete important projects initiated under Rosselló, such as the Urban Train and the Puerto Rico Coliseum, will also work in his favor.

Deadlines have come and gone, but instead of overseeing inauguration projects, the commonwealth has mostly been fighting with contractors over work specifications. Deadlines on both projects have long passed and have been redrawn, but the construction goes on.

Yet, Rosselló's greatest legacy is probably Health Reform, a bold move that largely got the government out of the business of delivering healthcare and allowing the medically indigent to seek private healthcare free of charge.

Despite criticism of the plan as too costly, it is wildly popular and Rosselló is promising to go a step further and institute universal healthcare in Puerto Rico if elected.

A lackluster economy and rising crime rate under Calderón will also help Rosselló to get elected to a third term in office.

That said, Resident Commissioner Acevedo Vilá, although criticized for not spending enough time in Washington, has his own record of achievement in office.

Under his watch, the federal government gave a historic boost in education funds to Puerto Rico, and he won favorable terms for the closure of Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, despite heavy pressure by the Navy and its supporters to cut Puerto Rico out of a redevelopment plan.

Acevedo Vilá, an integral part of the Calderón administration, has also deftly moved to separate himself from it and present himself to the public as his own man.

Nowhere was this more clear than his strong stance against the nomination of Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado as Supreme Court chief justice.

This week he said that Calderón did not do enough to fight crime, that a succession of three police superintendents created instability in the department that harmed its ability to stem the rising wave of violent crime.

The resident commissioner has also separated himself in more subtle ways from Calderón, talking about regionalization of government services and increased municipal powers as two priorities. These are areas which the governor has shied away from.

Of course, Acevedo Vilá's ace in the sleeve is the corruption issue which he will use with gusto during the campaign.

It will clearly be effective to some extent, especially if ongoing federal probes in the Superaqueduct project yield indictments of former Rosselló administration officials or associates.

But clearly, Acevedo Vilá will have to do much more than raise the corruption issue if he hopes to beat Rosselló, still the only governor to earn 1 million votes in an election.

Calderón's final year

Gov. Calderón could do much in her last year in office to both help Acevedo Vilá get elected and help restore the poor perception the public has of her administration.

In a recent interview with reporters, she said she was looking forward to her last year in office. She said since she is not seeking reelection she is free to make tough decisions, and govern for the public good, rather than public approval.

But that has been true much of this year, and the governor has remained strangely timid in her proposals, giving the impression that she is more interested in making it to the end of her term, than in leaving behind any lasting legacy.

The failure of the management contract with France-based Ondeo to manage the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, however, has forced the governor into making a bold move -- retaking control of the troubled utility.

On paper, the plan to "regionalize" the water utility sounds good, but many islanders are fearful that the government will once again be in charge of this vital service.

The transition back to the private sector will be a tough one. And next year, there will be another transition when Calderón leaves office.

Her handling of the issue until then will likely will have a big impact on defining public opinion of her administration.

That's one reason that Acevedo Vilá could be as nervous as the many islanders wondering if their government is really up to the task.

John Marino, Managing 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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