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Puerto Rico Profile: Pedro Rosselló

May 19, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Pedro Rosselló, Puerto Rico’s sixth elected governor, has always been a fierce competitor. With less than a year to go in his second and final term as the island’s foremost elected leader, the drive and determination that have been responsible for so many of his successes — and not a few of his failures — show little evidence of abatement.

Rosselló was born in San Juan on April 5, 1944. As a young man, he excelled in both athletics and academics. A superb tennis player, he won five Puerto Rico men’s singles championships and was nationally ranked by the United States Tennis Association (USTA). He was the captain of the tennis team at the University of Notre Dame, where he received the top scholar-athlete award in 1966. That same year he graduated from Notre Dame magna cum laude.

After college, Rosselló, whose father was a psychiatrist, began studying medicine. At Yale Medical School, he was president of his class, an early indication of his much later political success. Having married the former Irma Margarita "Maga" Nevares in 1969, Rosselló received his medical degree cum laude in 1970.

Dr. Rosselló remained on the U.S. mainland for the next six years, serving his medical residency in general and pediatric surgery at Harvard University. In 1976, he returned to Puerto Rico, where he held numerous surgical teaching positions at the School of Medicine at the University of Puerto Rico. He obtained a masters degree in public health in 1981, and in 1983 was named Chief of Pediatric Surgery and Director of the Surgery Department at UPR Medical School.

By the mid-1980s, Dr. Pedro Rosselló had amassed quite a list of achievements. He was a prominent pediatric surgeon and medical professor; he was a husband and the father of three sons; and he remained active in the tennis world, heading the Puerto Rico and Caribbean Tennis Associations and sitting on the executive board of the USTA.

His political career, however, was only just beginning.

Dr. Pedro Rosselló was appointed Director of Health for the City of San Juan in 1985. Three years later, on his first attempt at major elected office, he lost a tight race for the office of Resident Commissioner, Puerto Rico’s non-voting delegate to the U.S. Congress. In 1991, he was elevated to the presidency of the New Progressive Party (NPP), the traditional rank of the party’s gubernatorial candidate.

Rosselló’s rapid political rise culminated in his election as Governor of Puerto Rico in 1993. He won by the widest margin on the island in two decades in what was then the greatest victory in the history of the NPP.

An advocate of statehood for Puerto Rico, Gov. Rosselló supported that option in a status plebiscite in 1993, the first on the island since 1967. The vote, which was not sponsored by the U.S. Congress and was therefore not legally binding, found "enhanced commonwealth," as advocated by the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), to be slightly more popular than statehood, with neither getting a majority of the votes.

In 1996, Pedro Rosselló was elected to a second term as governor by an even more impressive margin than in 1992. Buoyed by this mandate, he lobbied strongly for a congressionally sanctioned status plebiscite for Puerto Rico in 1998, the 100th anniversary of rule by the United States.

The United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act, known as the Young Bill, outlined four status options for Puerto Rico: statehood, commonwealth, free association, and independence. Supported by Gov. Rosselló, the bill passed by one vote in the House of Representatives. The U.S. Senate, however, did not vote on the issue.

Gov. Rosselló decided to continue with plans for a 1998 plebiscite based on the language in the Young Bill, despite the lack of congressional authorization. Additional problems arose throughout 1998. A telephone workers’ strike following the privatization of the Puerto Rico Telephone Company badly damaged the governor’s image; and Hurricane Georges devastated the island, prompting many to urge postponement of the plebiscite.

Gov. Rosselló resolved nevertheless to hold the status plebiscite on December 13, 1998. Statehood registered a slight increase over the last plebiscite, collecting 46.6% of the votes (as opposed to 46.3% in 1993). The winning option, however, was "None of the Above," which covered a range of opinions, from displeasure with the Governor to support for status options that did not appear on the ballot.

The 1998 plebiscite was a major political setback for Pedro Rosselló, whose entire career had been a remarkable string of successes. Having suffered a drop in popularity, he announced on June 1, 1999, that he would not seek a third term as governor.

Like a tennis champion who loses a key set late in the match, however, Rosselló seems determined to make a strong finish. A few weeks prior to his announcement that he would not seek re-election, Rosselló testified before the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Resources Committee. Analyzing the results of the December plebiscite, Rosselló reminded Senators of the need for clear, congressionally-defined status options. "Our Nation’s most basic civic virtues demand that neither this committee nor the Senate nor the Congress as a whole shirk the constitutional duty to make all needful rules and regulations respecting [Puerto Rico]," he said.

On June 6, 1999, Rosselló appeared before the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization to make the case even more strongly for action on Puerto Rico’s status. Demanding that Puerto Rico be added to the U.N.’s List of Non-Autonomous Territories, he told the Committee that "after five Congresses have failed to offer the People of Puerto Rico a valid mechanism for its self-determination, I come to demand of you pro-active action within your duty to decolonize the world."

The central issue, however, which has dominated Puerto Rican politics for more than a year has been Vieques. After firing range guard David Sanes Rodriguez was killed by an errant bomb during a Navy training exercise on Vieques on April 19, 1999, Puerto Rico has united to demand that the Navy cease all activities on the island.

Pedro Rosselló has taken a leading role in the effort to resolve the Vieques controversy, and as Governor he has represented the island in negotiations with Washington. On October 19, 1999, he declared to the Senate Armed Services Committee that "[t]he plight of Vieques is simply that of a community of United States citizens who are energetically engaged in nothing more sinister than the exercise of their sacred constitutional right to petition their federal government for the redress of grievances."

On January 31, 2000, Gov. Rosselló and President Clinton agreed on a plan for Vieques that will allow the residents of the island to vote on whether the Navy will stay or go. The accord, which allows a limited resumption of training with "dummy" bombs, has been extremely controversial.

Indeed, with less than one year left before Rosselló leaves office, it is likely that Vieques will remain a major topic for the rest of his tenure. As such, much of Rosselló’s legacy depends on the outcome of the Vieques issue. It remains to be seen whether his compromise agreement with President Clinton, which will probably lead to the Navy’s departure in the next three years, will be viewed as a political sell-out or as a pragmatic and far-sighted victory over the Pentagon and its powerful supporters in the U.S. Congress.

Pedro Rosselló appears to be betting that the latter is true. In the meantime, he is looking to the future. He is the Chairman of Vice President Al Gore’s presidential campaign in Puerto Rico, and he advises the Vice President on Hispanic matters, causing speculation of a possible move to Washington for a position in the new administration, should Vice President Gore win the presidential election in November.

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