Este artículo no está disponible en español.


The Small Victims of Big Political Fights

by Lance Oliver

October 15, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled, according to the old saying.

In Puerto Rico, among the fighting elephants these days are Gov. Pedro Rosselló, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, San Juan Mayor Sila Calderón, and, naturally, the two major political parties.

There are lots of people playing the role of grass. Owners of small shops in the Condado section of San Juan. People unfortunate enough to have to travel along the northeast coast of the island. Most of all, as usual, taxpayers.

In recent weeks, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court has halted two major projects being undertaken by the Rosselló administration: the demolition of the Condado Trio properties in the heart of that tourism district; and Route 66, the toll road intended to bypass the worst of the congestion and blight called Highway 3 that links San Juan and Fajardo.

The Condado Trio standoff is an example of how partisan politics hurts Puerto Rico in the pocketbook. The Rosselló administration wants to do something with prime real estate that isn't carrying its weight. As mayor of San Juan, Sila Calderón wants to have a say in what happens in her city. So far, understandable.

The city puts forth a proposal, but of course the Rosselló administration cannot accept it. That would be tantamount to admitting that an opponent can actually do something right. So the government selects a questionable consortium to do the project. Secrecy shrouds the reasons for the selection and little or no progress is made even after more than a year has passed.

Meanwhile, Calderón cannot admit that the proposal accepted by the Rosselló administration has merit because, again, that would mean admitting that an opponent can actually do something right. No way can that precedent be set. So off to court we go.

After months of deliberation, the Supreme Court halts the project, not that there was much to be halted, as far as the already despondent business owners in the area could see. They are the ones who suffer most directly, but taxpayers also lose because costs keep adding up while the equipment is idle.

Tourists walking down Ashford Avenue, perhaps for the first time, on a warm Puerto Rico night, suddenly come to a dark section of street lined with a temporary construction wall, behind which sits a building that is empty and appears to be abandoned. Maybe it's best to turn back and go to the hotel. Certainly, the scene doesn't entice them to wander further, maybe stop into one of the little shops up ahead.

Thanks to the political process, this goes on for years, bleeding local merchants, disenchanting visitors to the Island of Enchantment and therefore affecting the tourism industry as they go home and give unenthusiastic reports to neighbors or just decide themselves to go somewhere else next time.

This almost unavoidable clash, in which one party is virtually obligated to oppose whatever the other proposes, only gives the administration more reason to try to "fast-track" every undertaking. The idea is to get as much work done as possible before the inevitable lawsuit. That way, in addition to arguing the merits of the project, the government can also claim "it's too late to stop now, we've already spent millions on this."

The administration used a different version of that argument when the Supreme Court stopped the Route 66 project. Environmental groups oppose the project and were successful in getting the Supreme Court to halt it. In appealing that ruling, the government said that at this point more environmental damage would be done by halting the project, because land already churned up by the bulldozers would erode.

Between the arrogance of an administration that believes nobody else knows what's good for Puerto Rico and the automatic, knee-jerk response of the political opposition, ordinary people have lost faith in these major public works projects.

Most people don't think new highways are really going to help. Most think the Superaqueduct isn't going to improve San Juan's water supply (skepticism that may be warranted, since this project just connects two distant neglected reservoirs to San Juan's neglected water system). Most people don't think the Urban Train will be anything more than a boondoggle, though it at least has the potential to help the city.

People have lost faith in these projects because they recognize that the political process has overtaken the public interest and the elephants have forgotten about the grass.

That should be of interest to two people running for governor, one of whom stakes his reputation on major public works projects he has done for Puerto Rico and another who is doing her best to play the role of obstructionist on the projects that don't suit her.


Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback