Comfort In The Power Vacuum At La Fortaleza

by John Marino

December 10, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. As Puerto Rico passes through marathon federal court hearings on lawsuits resulting from its contested gubernatorial race -- the tightest in years if not of all time -- the gubernatorial recount plods on.

Much attention is being focused on whether or not the federal courts will throw out or adjudicate the infamous triple-marked, mixed-vote ballots in which an "X" was marked below the insignia of the Puerto Rican Independence Party and beside the names of Popular Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate Aníbal Acevedo Vilá and his running mate Roberto Prats.

And hardly any attention is focusing on the recount itself, which shows, as early election returns had it, New Progressive Party gubernatorial candidate Pedro Rosselló with a slight lead over Acevedo Vilá, who surged just ahead of the former governor in the dawn after Election Day when PDP bastions from Mayaguez and Caguas and elsewhere were factored in. So far, the recount suggests that the number of those controversial ballots being contested by the NPP is far less than the 28,000 figure first estimated by State Elections Commission chief Aurelio Gracia.

One thing is clear; whoever wins, the next governor will enter office supremely compromised. Puerto Rico is living under a shadow government, with power being shared between a lame-duck governor and her possible PDP successor, as well as the NPP opposition that won big in every race except the one for La Fortaleza.

The impossibly slow recount, which more than anything else is holding in suspense the name of Puerto Rico's next governor, is also adding to the sense of a shadowy web of shared power, which is pushing the island along in a perfunctory manner.

The reasons for it could be as simple as it is impossible to get anything significant done in Puerto Rico during December, as the advent of Las Navidades, the long Christmas season, marches onward.

But Puerto Ricans are kind of getting used to the power vacuum in La Fortaleza. And they could immediately resent the next occupant of 1 La Fortaleza Street who breaks that spell. That's on top of the fact that whoever sits in La Fortaleza will face nearly half of Puerto Rico rabidly opposed to his administration. And convinced he stole the election.

It all started with Gov. Calderón's announcement last year that she would not seek a second term in office. Her self-made lame duck status immediately sapped her political power, and confined her to working on projects already in the pipeline.

Acevedo Vilá's stock would undoubtedly rise within the PDP if he reaches La Fortaleza, especially so because the party elders originally passed him over for former governor's son José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral. But everywhere else he would turn he would face political opponents, who control the island's sole Congressional seat and its Legislature, as well as a majority of town halls across the island.

Rosselló would have much more political power, but his public image has undoubtedly been impacted by the messy electoral aftermath, during which his political opponent enjoys the benefit of a provisionally certified 3,880ˆvote lead in the race with over 98 percent of ballots counted. The former governor's stock with the general public would also be hurt further if he gained power through the annulment of the so-called pivazo ballots, which the NPP is asking the federal courts to toss.

In the meantime, nothing too much can get done, and that's reassuring to a public that has become disenchanted with gubernatorial power plays.

I arrived in Puerto Rico in the waning days of Rafael Hernández Colón's third and final term in office, when a sputtering economy and a surging crime wave combined to make him a very unpopular governor. He was hardly speaking with the press, and public opinion of him was further damaged by his unsuccessful attempts to seek an "improved" commonwealth and his frequent travels.

It was at that time I first heard the expression about "the water at La Fortaleza," a drink that apparently made governors drunk with their own power, and turned hopeful, engaged figures into cloistered beings, confident in their own ideas and little else, and extremely distrustful of the public.

Eight years after a young Rosselló took office, pledging to work for all Puerto Ricans, he too left, literally running to the airport, his public image already stained by corruption scandals involving associates and the strange behavior that occupants of La Fortaleza eventually display. One example: his insistence on building a $20 million monument of a huge seashell which no one else really wanted.

The water seems to have worked its magic most quickly on current occupant of La Fortaleza, Sila Calderón, who almost immediately began to simply refuse to answer questions she did not want asked in the first place.

By the time she got married to her former economic development chief, throwing a reception for the public at the governor's mansion, it was a good thing she had announced that she would not seek a second term. Two years into her first, most of the public had seen enough.

Acevedo Vilá and Rosselló need to take note: the idea of a vacancy at La Fortaleza is becoming increasingly appealing to many people.

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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