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The Lessons of Election 2000

by Lance Oliver

November 10, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

In the 1990s, the political landscape in Puerto Rico was dominated by Pedro Rosselló and the New Progressive Party. In the year 2000, the voters clearly said the 1990s were over.

Just as the Popular Democratic Party had to lick its wounds after the 1996 general elections and take what little solace it could find from winning San Juan City Hall, the NPP this year saw itself swept aside, regaining San Juan but losing La Fortaleza, the Legislature and the majority of the mayoral positions around the island.

In the tradition of current political thinking on the island, Carlos Pesquera will likely be accorded the full blame. Just as Héctor Luis Acevedo became the ultimate scapegoat and disappeared from the scene instantly and completely after his loss four years ago, Pesquera will quickly be ushered off the stage and the party will begin the process of building up a new figure to play the leader and savior role.

Political campaigning Puerto Rican style demands the candidate be elevated to superstar status, with the glamorous appeal of a movie star, the dance moves of a salsa singer and the iron hand of a caudillo. That explains the inefficient and anachronistic insistence on making the candidate the party president. There can only be one maximum leader.

Conversely, the formerly exalted candidate who loses must then take all the blame, allowing the rest of the party to continue on unscathed.

Naturally, it’s not that simple. In examining Pesquera’s loss to Sila Calderón, some things can be blamed on Pesquera and some were beyond his control.

Pesquera can be blamed for his stiff campaigning style, though then again maybe he altered his personality as much as he could. He was the easiest target for the television comedy show satirists with his arm pumping, his chest clasping and his question-evading, script-reading debate performances.

But Pesquera cannot be blamed for the hole in which he started this race. He had to deal with the legacy of Rosselló, who is now personally unpopular and who managed to remind voters of why they dislike him by firing a cabinet member just weeks before the election. To most voters, it appeared Angie Varela was fired for telling the truth.

It’s also easy to overestimate the strength of the NPP behind Pesquera. Sure, Rosselló handily won two elections. But for a party that controlled most municipalities, the Legislature and La Fortaleza, the NPP had a miserable election score card during the 1990s.

It tried to convert the 1992 Rosselló win into a status vote victory in 1993 and failed. Constitutional amendments put on the ballot by the administration were shot down. The election for president of the local chapter of the Democratic Party, hotly contested at the time because it was a preview of the 1996 resident commissioner contest between Celeste Benítez and Carlos Romero Barceló, was lost. And of course statehood was rejected again in the 1998 plebiscite.

What else can we learn from this year’s election results?

There appears to be a strong tendency among PDP voters to "come home," sometimes in the last stages of the campaign. This happened in the 1998 status vote and again this year. Both times, polls showed the trend toward the PDP in the final days but were not quick enough to predict the outcome.

We also see that "watermelons" still exist and vote in Puerto Rico, despite predictions they would massively support Rubén Berríos this year. A few did, but most voted for Calderón.

Finally, we can expect nothing meaningful to happen in terms of Puerto Rico’s political status in the near future. There are people of various political persuasions in Puerto Rico who have made entire careers of predicting an imminent change in the island’s status and conjuring up scenarios to support that hope. They will do so again, probably pointing to the federal money for "educating" Puerto Ricans on status options as a reason to believe. They will be wrong again.

Next year, Puerto Rico will be controlled by a party that has little incentive to try to tinker with status, and to the extent the PDP does want to make changes, they are changes the Congress has already rejected in advance. It’s a standoff before the discussions even begin.

With no pressure from Puerto Rico, and, more importantly, with a new president who will not care about Puerto Rico’s political status and a new Congress that does not want to address the issue any more than the last one did, there will be no agent for change on the status issue.

There will be plenty of change, however. An entire new regime will take over across the island and Calderón will have the responsibility of bringing about the "brilliant future" she promised during the campaign.

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

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