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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. Why?

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 at:

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