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The Scapegoat And The Savior

by Lance Oliver

November 24, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

If the New Progressive Party looks a little ragged these days, it’s not surprising, considering the election defeat it suffered earlier this month. But what’s also contributing to the disarray is the party’s inability to follow the usual course in recent Puerto Rico politics and renew itself by casting out the losing candidate as a kind of all-purpose scapegoat.

Consider the Popular Democratic Party’s response to its electoral defeats in 1992 and 1996. In 1992, Victoria Muñoz disappeared from public after her loss. Her disappearance, after the first of the two Pedro Rosselló-led triumphs, allowed her party to pretend its problems had to do with its president and gubernatorial candidate.

Again in 1996, Héctor Luis Acevedo failed to lead the party to a win. Instead, the NPP retained its legislative majorities, control of La Fortaleza and the majority of the mayoral seats. Again, Acevedo disappeared and it was a long time before he began popping up on television news programs or in the newspapers as an authority on politics.

Modern politics in Puerto Rico is set up to ensure just this kind of response to electoral defeat. The main parties insist that the candidate for governor must also be the party president. It’s a way of thinking that smacks of the old "caudillo" ways: people want a single, strong leader.

Though in many practical ways it would make more sense for the candidate and the party president to be two different people, since they have two different jobs to do, party insiders when questioned will say they have no choice, that the people demand this kind of leadership.

The political parties in Puerto Rico, therefore, build up their candidates. They pump their arms (the men, like Carlos Pesquera and Rosselló) or wave and smile the fixed and frozen beauty queen smile (the women, like Sila Calderón) in front of crowds that react as if they’d just sighted Ricky Martin or Dayanara Torres and Marc Anthony. The candidates are seen as saviors and stars.

Until they lose. Then they disappear and their quick exit from the stage allows the party machinery to move forward with the unstated rationalization that the problem was with the leader, and since he or she is now gone, a new star can be anointed to lead to future triumphs.

Pesquera was poised to follow the same path, saying after his election defeat that he would leave politics. But there was one problem with that. If Pesquera resigned as president of the NPP, Norma Burgos would be elevated to president, and she is a person currently out of favor with the party leadership.

Burgos has been out of step on the party line on the Vieques issue and, most of all, alienated other NPP candidates when she appeared to be encouraging people to vote for her by casting a mixed ballot if they didn’t like her party’s position on, for example, Vieques. The official party line, of course, is that voters should cast a party-line vote for the NPP.

So Pesquera was forced to stay on the job, loyal soldier that he is. He is the lamest of ducks.

That’s why the party is currently undergoing the debate sparked by Edison Misla Aldarondo’s refusal to abandon his pursuit of the minority leader position in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives. What would be a quickly settled squabble in times of party discipline is, instead, dragging out into an open debate, with legislators and mayors all weighing in with their opinions because Pesquera, the party president, cannot simply impose his will quickly and quietly.

There will no doubt be more troubles. Politics abhors a power vacuum, and the NPP has one now.

The 2000 election was in many ways a repeat of 1992, only with a different party winning across the board and tossing out the previous eight-year regime.

And just as Sila Calderón’s election as mayor of San Juan was the only bright spot for the PDP in 1996, Jorge Santini’s election as mayor of San Juan was the main bright spot on a gloomy election night for the NPP this year. Likewise, just as Calderón was instantly labeled the frontrunner for 2000 back in 1996, some are already proclaiming Santini to be the NPP’s future. But that power struggle must still be fought.

P.S. – In a previous column, I wrote about the unpopular plans for a $25 million monument proposed by the Rosselló administration. Officially called the Triumphal Circle, and popularly and derisively dubbed the "caracol" by the public, the idea never caught on. Now, it appears Rosselló has given up his quest to have the monument built, perhaps realizing it would die a quick death under Gov. Calderón.

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

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