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The Allentown Morning Call

Leader Of New Political Party Tries To Shake Up Puerto Rico

He Is Focusing On The People, Not Status Of The Commonwealth

By Matthew Hay Brown Of The Morning Call

October 3, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Allentown Morning Call. All rights reserved.

CAYEY, Puerto Rico -- Visiting the University of Puerto Rico campus here on a sunny morning, Rogelio Figueroa asked a pair of students what they thought about island politics -- and got an earful.

Sanel Rivera, an English major, said the political parties in the country promote only themselves, not Puerto Rico. Once they gain power, he said, it's clear they don't have a real plan to improve conditions on the island.

Dara Rodriguez, studying biology, said she didn't trust politicians. She has seen too much corruption in the political parties.

"I see it as dirty," she said.

Both agreed on an underlying problem: the status question, the divisive debate over whether Puerto Rico should remain a U.S. commonwealth, become a state or declare independence, has paralyzed cooperation on other issues.

Figueroa, 40, with lanky limbs and a quick, broad smile, listened intently.

"I believe I have a solution that leaves behind status tribalism and makes status resolution just another problem, no bigger than all the rest," the former chemical engineer told the students.

That solution, he says, is Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico, a new party that is focusing on a clean environment, sustainable development and what he calls "social rescue" -- confronting poverty, drug abuse, violence.

Conspicuously absent among those concerns is a vision of the island's eventual relationship with the United States. In contrast to the established parties -- the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, the pro-statehood New Progressive Party and the Puerto Rican Independence Party -- Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico is promoting no particular status preference.

"The parties have used status to divide Puerto Rico and gain power for themselves," said Figueroa, the president and gubernatorial candidate of the new party. "Puerto Rico will never progress that way. We have to start showing people that there are other ways of thinking -- and more important problems to work on.

"Once we can work together, we can talk about status."

Figueroa's collective is the most prominent of the half-dozen new parties founded in time for the elections in November. Encouraged by a federal court decision last year that made it easier for them to register, they have distinguished themselves by refusing to take sides in the status debate.

That may reflect the interests of the average citizen. In a survey published in the spring by the San Juan newspaper El Nuevo Dia, respondents ranked political status 15th among the island's most worrying issues -- just behind arguments among politicians. The top five concerns were crime, drug abuse, health care, government corruption and unemployment.

"In Puerto Rico, to raise your kids, to pay your mortgage and save money for your retirement, you don't need status for any of it," said Nelson Rosario, the San Juan attorney who argued the federal case and is running for the legislature with the new Civil Action Party.

It may be too early for the established parties to begin worrying. Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico is the only one of the new collectives to offer a gubernatorial challenger, and he's running as a write-in candidate. The Civil Action Party, Citizen Alternative and others are limiting their aspirations to mayoral and legislative races.

But in the midst of what many see as a particularly nasty gubernatorial race, with polls showing growing numbers threatening to stay home on Election Day, some say the upstart parties may launch a new way of thinking about island politics, beyond the status stalemate.

"They start with the idea of, "Let's not get into this mess that the other parties are in,"' said political analyst Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua. He sees Figueroa and others as helping to lay the groundwork for a broader political spectrum.

A successful entrepreneur -- he created, nurtured and sold businesses in software development and documentation systems for the pharmaceutical industry, allowing him to retire before 40 -- Figueroa is running a small organization: two full-time volunteers and a handful of part-timers.

He has appeared alongside the major candidates at public forums, but was not invited to the first televised debate of the season. He has focused on news conferences and campus visits.

"This is the place to be," he said recently outside the student center at the University of Puerto Rico in Cayey, where he and volunteers were handing out postcards explaining how to cast a write-in vote. "These are people who are optimistic, open-minded, dreamers, before the system channels that energy into consumerism and selfishness."

Figueroa said he, personally, has no status preference.

"Each option just brings different sets of advantages and barriers, challenges and opportunities," he said. "Status is important. But I believe that I and many Puerto Ricans would be happy under any status, as long as we have a good environment, good family life, peace, opportunity of education, no discrimination When you go to the bottom line, the flag that flies over your head is just that."

He was received warmly.

"I would consider voting for him," said Rivera, an independentista.

"He is expressing the feelings that we have," said Rodriguez, who favors the island's present commonwealth status. "But the system is against him."

Figueroa said he is running now to open minds. In 2008, he said, he expects to win.

"I need to show people that I am a real candidate, and to vote for me now," he said. "Don't be afraid of losing your vote. The only vote that I believe will count is the vote against the status quo. The vote for something new."

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