After Tuesday

by John Marino

October 29, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. As Puerto Rico's gubernatorial campaign heads to a close, one thing is certain: Whoever wins the race for La Fortaleza next Tuesday, he should put fomenting some unity in public discourse at the top of his agenda.

This year's gubernatorial campaign has been one of the dirtiest, least enlightened in the history of the commonwealth, according to several prominent political observers. And if that view eventually is found not to be the case, this election campaign is at least among the contenders, and has left many a voter with a bad taste in the mouth.

A case in point is an interview with San Juan City Magazine this month by Alvaro Cifuentes, a veteran of both San Juan and Washington, D.C. political wars. The Democratic Party official, and former La Fortaleza chief of staff, says local politics has a bad reputation across the nation. "If you talk to almost every politician in this nation, Puerto Rico stands out as the lowest level of political and human maturity in dealing with the electorate. Unfortunately they see Puerto Rico politics as something of a combination of "Alice in Wonderland' and Iraq. Where people wake up to hurt and damage other people. It goes to insult and to personal injury."

You can't blame the contestants -- Aníbal Acevedo Vilá of the Popular Democratic Party, Pedro Rosselló of the New Progressive Party and Rubén Berríos, of the Puerto Rican Independence Party -- for the current state of affairs. They've been following a well-worn path of their predecessors that continues to inform current campaign strategies.

A campaign is no time to discuss unity, when ripping apart opponents is seen as part of the vital business of getting elected. In fact, candidates who would flinch rather than attack, may actually be seen as letting down their supporters, allowing opponents unnecessary advantage.

But after Tuesday, congratulations for one of the candidates will be in order. And both the victor and the losers should use that as a base for common ground on other issues, which Puerto Rico so desperately needs.

The inability of the main political parties to overcome their political tribalism to agree on other issues is holding back the island's progress, say a new breed of politicians running under new political parties. In all, seven new parties have been registered with the State Elections Commission, and 11 independent candidates are seeking posts across the island, from Rincón to Vieques.

The move comes in the wake of a series of federal court decisions that made it easier for new parties to register. They voided local election rules requiring notarization for each signature on petitions to register new parties as "burdensome" and "unconstitutional." The wave of political independence illustrated by the non-traditional candidacies has also been driven by divisive local politics, on full display in the current races.

The new parties, such as Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico, focus on issues other than status, such as the environment and sustainable development and improving public education that they say more directly impact the daily lives of Puerto Ricans.

They pose no immediate threat to the traditional parties, being contained largely to local or write-in candidacies. But traditional parties should heed the newcomers' call, not only by focusing on some of the issues they bring up, but by launching cooperative efforts at resolving the problems of the day.

Here's list of issues where cooperation is not only sorely needed for success, but should be relatively simple to attain, if a new governor wants to:

Political status: While the PDP and PIP support a constituents assembly from local political forces, the NPP wants islanders to decide by referendum whether to call on the federal government to take action on defining Puerto Rico's political status.

Berríos questions the will of Acevedo Vilá to take action on status, as Acevedo Vilá and Rosselló have ripped apart each other's plans. But the two approaches don't have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, if a local constituents assembly on status was launched with a call for Washington to take action on the matter, the two actions could actually strengthen and compliment each other, making the overall goal all the more attainable.

The environment: Puerto Rico's large population and limited land area necessitate that sound, long-term planning is carried out, free from partisan favoritism. If the government can accomplish that, and enforce environmental laws, many environmental concerns would disappear. One of the island's biggest polluters remains the commonwealth government, so creating a public policy to cleanup its act could also help.

The economy: Equally long-term planning, borne of political consensus, is also required here. Unfortunately, economic incentives have been soiled as corrupt in the heat of this political campaign, not exactly something to instill investor confidence.

Public administration: A meeting of minds is also required for streamlining government, especially as major credit rating agencies are warning that commonwealth bonds could be downgraded if the government keeps taking on long-term debt to pay for annual budgetary items.

Special focus also should be given to public corporations, especially utilities, where politicians through the years have granted too many benefits to unionized workers, which has affected sound administrative practices.

The traditional parties, through the SEC, fought the relaxation of requirements to the formation of the new entities. Also, the SEC this month was successfully sued for ignoring the new groups in its public advertising campaign.

But the traditional politicians should listen to the newcomers, not fight them. They are borne of the dissatisfaction with the current parties. More importantly, they can, not only point to solutions, but also be potential partners for alliances to win the tri-party support required for resolving some of the long-standing problems mentioned here.

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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