The Anti-Government Backlash

by John Marino

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

. A friend of mine, a long-time observer of Puerto Rico’s political, business and cultural scene, told me last week that the commonwealth government has lost all credibility.

Never before, he said, has there been such a sustained attack on the government, coming from so many different, credible sources.

Sure he was addressing the discontent with the current administration of Gov. Calderón, but he was also talking about the bumbling of island lawmakers at the Capitol, the failings of the law enforcement and court systems and the out-of-control state of the commonwealth’s bloated bureaucracy.

The loss of credibility charge also encompassed the public corruption allowed to flourish under the previous administration of former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, the constant paternalistic, big spending attitude of the government regardless of who sits at La Fortaleza, and a class of politicians who lose themselves in sterile debate over political status rather than making tough decisions to fix things.

His basic message was this: The government has become an entity unto itself, bigger than any one administration or political party to tackle.

Ask the old-timers, he said, the ones who can still remember. They’ll tell you the current discontent is something different, not just the usual carping about the state of island infrastructure and the economy and whoever it is that is in power at the moment.

The failure of government was evident, days before he spoke, when the Legislature could not pass the ever-important bill enabling the government to retake control of the crisis-stricken Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, after two multinational firms failed to improve it.

It was just days before the slated takeover was set to take effect, but the Legislature would have to run the bill back through its two chambers after one of them had failed to include technical amendments in the version it passed, not because of problems with the legislation, but from sheer oversight.

Nothing in the history of modern Puerto Rico illustrates the potential incompetence of the commonwealth government more than the water crisis of the early 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of residents would routinely go for days without water running in their homes because of the scarcity of the precious liquid.

But the parliamentary blunder was important not just because it touched on the innate trepidation before a government takeover of the water utility it drove into the ground, but because it went to my friend’s central point: The government has simply stopped functioning, even concerning the most basic actions it must take.

The legislative mishap recalled Gov. Calderón’s blundering when trying to change the nomination of then Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado from Supreme Court chief justice to Supreme Court associate justice. It could not be done, as the vacancy had not yet been created among associate justices, just the chief justice spot. But none of the well-paid legal advisors at La Fortaleza and the Justice Department nixed the move until after the governor had made it.

Reporters making last minute calls to La Fortaleza the night before the government was slated to retake control of ASA after a decade of private management were told Calderón had yet to sign into the law the legislation that would enable the move. An hour later, the press release went out, at 8 p.m., saying the bill had indeed been signed.

Meanwhile, a food industry trade group released a study showing island lawmakers as among the best compensated and least productive in all the United States. The average local lawmaker pulls down $111,770 annually, while in places like Florida ($32,256) and Connecticut ($28,213) they earn much less.

The trade group called for the elimination of perks and pork barrel funds controlled by lawmakers, as well as other measures, that it said would save taxpayers $54 million annually. The study’s central finding – make the lawmakers part-time, they will do less harm.

Anybody who looks closely at government -- usually citizens only do such a thing when forced to do so, like getting a license of paying taxes – will see its failings first hand. But those personal impressions are being reinforced by blunders of those politicians in the public spotlight.

The return to credibility of the commonwealth government won’t be decided come November. The problem IS bigger than any one party or administration can handle.

It will take many years, decades, to restore the commonwealth government’s credibility -- as long as it took to destroy it in the first place. And it will take an unlikely unity among political opponents, civil groups and other sectors of society in order to pull off.

Much will depend on whether the current dissatisfaction stems from a real sea change in public perception of government, as my friend insists is the case, or whether it’s just the usual griping about the state of the commonwealth.

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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