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Puerto Rico At A Crossroads On Statehood Status

By MATTHEW HAY BROWN, Courant Staff Writer

November 8, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE HARTFORD COURANT. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- With the unprecedented election of a pro-commonwealth governor and a statehood-seeking delegate to Congress, Puerto Rico could be on the verge of a new era of bipartisan cooperation -- or a deepening of the bitter status conflict that already divides the territory.

Anibal Acevedo Vila and Luis Fortuno, both young attorneys who are new to the offices they won last week, say they will work together for the good of the island.

Acevedo Vila, set to become the next governor of Puerto Rico in January pending the result of a recount to begin today, has called the election "an extraordinary opportunity to grow in our democracy."

Fortuno, who will become resident commissioner -- the island's nonvoting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives -- expressed confidence that everyone involved would "comport themselves and act as the people of Puerto Rico deserve."

But given the depth of the divide over the island's political relationship with the United States, real cooperation will likely be difficult.

"It all depends on whether the soldiers down below stop shooting on orders," said Manuel Rodriguez Orellana, secretary of the Puerto Rican Independence Party for North American affairs. "I don't want to sound too optimistic. I'm not sure that, even with the best of intentions, they can control the dynamics that have taken hold of Puerto Rico."

Ordinarily, the resident commissioner represents the governor in Washington, working in Congress to advance the administration's agenda on various issues, including how to resolve the island's political relationship with the United States.

But if the automatic recount upholds Acevedo Vila's narrow victory -- he was leading former Gov. Pedro Rossello by 0.2 percent of the vote in a preliminary count -- Puerto Rico will have a governor and a resident commissioner with opposing views on that relationship.

Acevedo Vila, 42, the leader of the Popular Democratic Party and the current resident commissioner, wants the island to maintain its commonwealth status. Fortuno, 44, of the New Progressive Party, wants it to become the 51st state of the union.

The question of status is the defining conflict in the island's politics, the dispute around which the major parties are organized and the basis for differing positions on education, economic development and other issues. The unresolved and increasingly shrill debate is seen by many as hindering progress on the island.

Gov. Sila Calderon, a member of the Popular Democrat Party who declined to run for a second term, expressed hope that the split result could promote a new spirit of cooperation between parties.

"It will be an opportunity to put the interests and the aspirations of the Puerto Rican people above personal and party interests," she said.

Acevedo Vila called Fortuno the morning after the election.

"More than that I have won the governorship, the fundamental thing is that from this moment forward Puerto Rico wins," Acevedo Vila told reporters. "The styles of imposition have been rejected for a style of collaboration that transcends party lines."

He spoke cautiously about working with Fortuno.

"I believe that Attorney Fortuno has some styles that it seems to me are going to foster dialogue and good communication, and I hope I am not mistaken," he said.

Fortuno, meanwhile, called Acevedo Vila "a person who definitely has demonstrated an ability in the field of politics that nobody can question."

They might already be headed for conflict. During the campaign, Acevedo Vila pledged to convene a constituent assembly for Puerto Rico to generate status options for the island to consider. Fortuno favors asking Congress to define the options.

If they are unable to negotiate that process between themselves, Fortuno likely will enjoy a political advantage: His New Progressive Party wrested majorities in both chambers of the island Legislature from Acevedo Vila's Popular Democrats and won mayor's races in a majority of island towns.

Fortuno also is a Republican who campaigned stateside for President Bush, which likely will enhance his influence with the White House and the increased Republican majorities in Congress.

Rodriguez Orellana, the independentista, said Acevedo Vila and Fortuno might be able to work together to advance a decision on status.

"Neither of them will be able to do exactly what each wants, but there is room for dialogue, some sort of concerted action, to push for noncolonial, nonterritorial options," said Rodriguez Orellana. He added that the Puerto Rican Independence Party, which won one seat in the island House and one in the Senate last week, stood ready to help.

Political analyst Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua called the split election results evidence of Puerto Rico's political maturity. He said Acevedo Vila and Fortuno were both "honorable men" who would work well together.

"They're only opposed on the final solution to the status issue," he said. "This advances the process of making a decision."

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