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PUERTO RICO REPORT
Where No Politician Can Go
by Lance Oliver
September 24, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
First they called it the fight of the millennium, and then
it became, with less hyperbole, the welcome home party of the
millennium. It took Félix "Tito" Trinidad six
hours to get from his plane at Luis Muñoz Marín
International Airport to the Muñoz Marín Park in
Hato Rey where a big party awaited.
That's a little better than one mile per hour, but it doesn't
begin to tell the story. The airport was brought to a standstill
and many travelers couldn't get in and missed their flights. Thousands
lined the streets as Trinidad slowly made his way to the park.
People are still driving around with "Tito #1" written
on their windshields.
On Saturday night at 11 p.m., streets normally full of people
heading to bars and discos were empty. But at 3 a.m., they were
full of screaming, celebrating, happy people, many waving Puerto
Rican flags as they drove up and down, looking for an outlet for
their joy and pride.
Any politician, looking at those euphoric faces and billowing
flags would have to be envious. Sure, politicians draw adoring
crowds. In Puerto Rico, even more than in some other countries,
they are often given star treatment. The political party structures,
which require the candidate for governor to be the party president,
as well, further reinforce this tendency toward a cult of personality,
instead of a focus on policies, positions and abilities.
Still, the most successful politician in Puerto Rico today
can only hope to be popular with a bare majority of people. They
look at someone like Trinidad, or Dayanara Torres the day she
came home to Puerto Rico with the Miss Universe crown, and they
can only dream.
Well, actually there's something else they can do along with
dreaming. They can squeeze into the camera shot, hoping to bask
in a little reflected glory.
That was definitely the case this week. As he stepped off
the plane, Trinidad appeared to have an extra appendage attached
to him in the form of Carlos Pesquera, the New Progressive Party's
candidate for governor. Jorge Santini, primary candidate for
mayor, was also doing his best to stay in the photo frame.
They wanted a little of that undiluted popularity. It's understandable.
The trouble is, it doesn't work.
The very fact that Puerto Ricans are so divided by politics
goes a long way toward explaining the incredible outpouring of
sentiment that occurs every time someone or something comes along
that provides unanimity. Usually it's a sports or entertainment
star who provides the spark. The Vieques-Navy dispute was so
rare because it was a public policy issue that led to near consensus,
a virtually unknown occurrence.
Puerto Ricans savor a triumph like Trinidad's because it gives
them all a reason to be proud, regardless of their politics.
So many people, after the fight, talked about the massive celebration
and mentioned that one of its positive aspects was that everyone
felt united by the pride and happiness.
Many people don't like politicians horning in on those festivities.
At the rare moment when everyone feels like one big family, the
politician obviously trying to take advantage of the moment, is
just a reminder of division and is more likely to win resentment
than kind feelings.
Last year, when he announced plans for the status plebiscite,
Gov. Pedro Rosselló made heavy use of the song "La
copa de la vida," written by Puerto Rican songwriter Robi
Rosa and made famous worldwide by Ricky Martin. The artists protested,
but Rosselló continued to use the song. Later, he stopped.
I don't know, but I suspect it was because the political strategists
realized it did not have the intended effect. Instead of trading
on the popularity of the song and the men who created it, Rosselló
was seen as abusing it.
Puerto Ricans want their singers, songwriters, sports heroes,
Miss Universe contestants and other celebrities to be left out
of the political fray unless those individuals decide of their
own accord to dive in. They want to be able to celebrate a victory
like Trinidad's and feel that everyone is sharing the same moment.
They don't want to wonder whether the happy person cheering next
to them is a popular or a penepé.
There will be time for that later, and you can be sure that
the politically active Puerto Rican people will show up when it
comes time to campaign and vote. But meanwhile, the politicians
might as well learn their lesson. They won't win hearts or votes
by trying to co-opt the people's heroes.
Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly
for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email