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In Puerto Rico Race, It's Old Vs. New


October 30, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN - One of the candidates for the highest post in Puerto Rico is seen in campaign ads running through city streets on a mission to ''rescue the homeland.'' The other dances on a stage to the beat of popular reggaetón music promising ``progress with dignity.''

This U.S. territory's two top contenders in Tuesday's governor's race represent the past and the future. Front-runner Pedro Rosselló, 60, of the New Progressive Party is a former two-term governor who says the island has seen better days and that he will rescue it. His main competitor, Aníbal Acevedo Avilá, 42, is the dancer and the current representative in Washington who says his Popular Democratic Party is on the right path to bring Puerto Rico brighter times.

Polls have consistently showed Rosselló with a lead, but the gap has narrowed in recent days, and experts say the results will be close.

For the most part, the two candidates agree on issues that affect everyday life: crime, unemployment, education and economic development. But what really drives politics on this self-governing territory in the northeastern Caribbean is a relationship with the United States that has left many struggling with an identity crisis for a half century.

Rosselló is pushing for statehood while Acevedo supports keeping the commonwealth status.

''The island is polarized,'' said Javier Colón, head of the political science department at the University of Puerto Rico. ``This is a very disturbing issue for many people who don't want statehood.''


As members of a U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Rico's four million residents have U.S. citizenship but pay no federal taxes. They can be drafted into the military but cannot vote in the presidential election, and they do not have a voting representative in Congress.

''Being a territory is not an advantage; it's a limitation,'' Rosselló told The Herald. ``This is a big, black hole where you lose all your citizen's rights.''

With the election just three days away, the rhetoric has become more high-pitched, and minor street clashes have occurred. Trucks and vans equipped with giant speakers have been rattling the streets with booming music. Political talk dominates radio and television airwaves as well as restaurant countertops.

Both candidates have promised to give Puerto Rico a third shot at defining its relationship with the United States, despite votes in 1993 and 1998 in which Commonwealth status prevailed by slight margins.

Puerto Rico's status is always a sizzling topic but is particularly relevant this year because of controversy over military bombing exercises in Vieques and the ultimate closure in March of the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in Ceiba. Opposition to the Navy's use of the target range grew after an off-target bomb killed a civilian guard in April 1999.

Protests over the bombing exercises brought international attention to the island and created a perception of anti-American sentiment, an issue Rosselló says needs to be settled.


The Vieques controversy, Rosselló said, ``created a perception that Puerto Rico essentially was trying to separate itself from the United States. I don't think that perception is real. We have to make clear that Puerto Rico is not attempting to separate but rather wants to integrate fully.''

An estimated 3.4 million Puerto Ricans live on the U.S. mainland, including about 93,300 in Miami-Dade County and 62,000 in Broward County, according to U.S. Census figures.

Rosselló says a new referendum would allow voters to decide whether the U.S. Congress should define the territory's options for status. That ultimately would lead to a binding referendum on the island that would ask voters to choose between statehood and independence.


Acevedo said that allowing Washington to define the options for Puerto Rico would take away the right of residents to determine their future. Not including the commonwealth option in a referendum, he said, would deny voters a choice that has wide support.

Acevedo said he would prefer to clarify Puerto Rico's status through a constitutional convention where local delegates would ensure that their constituents have a voice in the debate.

Acevedo says the island's relationship with Washington is just fine and does not need mending as a result of the Vieques controversy. But he said the island's image continues to suffer because of alleged corruption during Rosselló's term.


Rosselló left office in 2000 amid a volatile investigation in which officials from his administration were accused of diverting $2.2 million from the defunct San Juan AIDS Institute. Although Rosselló was not charged with a crime, the corruption scandal provided a platform for Sila Calderón, also of the ruling Popular Democratic Party, who became the first woman elected governor. She announced earlier this year she would not seek reelection to devote more time to her personal life.


Rosselló acknowledged that there were problems and said corruption requires special attention.

''It's true that during my administration, certain officers of government were involved in corruption,'' he said. ``It is not true that this happened only during my administration or was greater during my administration.''

On Sunday, the candidates will have their closing rallies. Tens of thousands will pack a stadium for Rosselló and an outdoor plaza for Acevedo. The earth will shake with singing, dancing, shouting and street caravans as each candidate woos the crowds.

''Politics is very intense in Puerto Rico,'' Colón said. ``This could be a very, very close race.''


• BORN: Feb. 13, 1962

• WIFE: Lisa Gándara, two children

• PROFESSION: Lawyer, nonvoting delegate to the U.S. Congress

• SERVICE: Member of Puerto Rico's House of Representatives (1992-2000)


• BORN: April 5, 1944

• WIFE: Irma Margarita Nevares, three children, two grandchildren

• PROFESSION: Pediatrician, former governor

• SERVICE: Two consecutive four-year terms (1993-2000)

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