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Calderón Leaves Mixed Legacy

By By Matthew Hay Brown | Sentinel Staff Writer

January 1, 2005
Copyright © 2005 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

VEGA BAJA, Puerto Rico -- As Gov. Sila Calderón prepares to leave office, she counts her campaign against the island's poverty as one of the main things for which her administration should be remembered.

A couple of years ago, for instance, Alto de Cuba was one of this island's most notorious puntos, or drug points, a neighborhood in which families lived behind barred doors next to shooting galleries that attracted hundreds of addicts each day.

Leading a tour of the neighborhood recently, community leader Ramón Vicente Martínez stops to point out a green vacant lot. This was once a warren of abandoned cinder-block structures where addicts would inject themselves with heroin.

But now those buildings have been razed. The lot is surrounded by remodeled homes and illuminated by new streetlights. Workers plan to add a pair of basketball courts, all courtesy of the $1 billion anti-poverty program Calderón calls Special Communities.

"No. 1, clean government for Puerto Rico," the 62-year-old Calderón said in an interview at La Fortaleza, the 16th-century executive mansion in Old San Juan. "No. 2, we fought for the poor. No. 3, we broke barriers. We broke the barrier of gender."

'A terrible 4 years'

Critics give Puerto Rico's first female governor a very different review.

"I think she's had a terrible four years," opposition Sen. Kenneth McClintock said.

McClintock said four years of deficit spending and a failure to address looming government-pension payments created fiscal problems that are only now emerging. He blames cuts in the capital-gains tax for weakening the economy, and said a climate of political persecution, in the guise of cleaning up corruption, injected such venom into the political arena that it will take more than a generation to cleanse the system.

"The best example that she was a dismal failure is that she did not even dare to run for re-election," said McClintock, a leader of the statehood-seeking New Progressive Party.

Calderón, of the commonwealth-supporting Popular Democratic Party, called McClintock's comments "false accusations made by a politician who continually puts partisanship above the welfare of the people."

"The truth is that our administration faced a disastrous fiscal reality in the year 2001," she said. "I am proud to say that we turned around the public finances that the previous government, of which Mr. McClintock was part of, was responsible for.

"The 'political persecution' that Mr. McClintock refers to is actually the very strict ethical standards that I established for public management," she said, adding that more than 40 officials, party members or friends of the administration of her predecessor, Pedro Rosselló, were indicted or convicted for corruption.

Looking forward to leaving

After four years as mayor of San Juan and four as governor of this U.S. territory of 3.9 million, which followed experience as an adviser and later secretary of state under former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón, Calderón said she is looking forward to time away from politics.

"Politics is not my cup of tea," Calderón said. "Public service is."

When she came to office in 2001, she said, she found a government near bankruptcy, with $1.6 billion in debt hidden within the Government Development Bank and $600 million more in the agencies.

Heading a finance committee, she went to the ratings agencies to ask for more time, refinanced the debt and cut $1 billion from the budget during four years. She prides herself on not having laid off one government employee during her term.

Calderón also pursued government corruption, mostly within the Rosselló administration, with a blue-ribbon commission that investigated major government transactions for wrongdoing. Opponents said her efforts amounted to the criminalization of the pro-statehood movement.

Calderón dismisses the charge. Many of those convicted were prosecuted in federal courts, and many pleaded guilty. Calderón said the focus on corruption was necessary to restore the public faith in government.

Poverty work wins kudos

But the effort that has engaged Calderón most -- and has won her the most acclaim -- is Special Communities. On an island where per-capita income is a third that of the United States and nearly half the population lives below the federal poverty line, the new program has targeted 686 of the island's poorest communities for development, with residents themselves organizing to prioritize their needs.

"This is a project that has to do with the transformation of people," she said. "It has to do with people understanding that they do not have to accept their destiny as it has happened to them."

Vicente Martínez, owner of a bodega and other properties in the Alto de Cuba area, said Calderón met her commitment to the neighborhood "100 percent." The efforts, he said, have chased away all but a few of the hundreds of addicts.

Gov.-elect Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, Calderón's Popular Democratic Party protégé, pledges to continue the program.

"Her commitment to Special Communities, which is basically taking care of the poorest of the poor in Puerto Rico, is not only a huge accomplishment," Acevedo Vilá said, "it is a very important readjustment of the priorities of the government."

An island in flux

Calderón leaves Puerto Rico at a crossroads. Tax breaks that once lured American investment are being phased out; the military bases that made the island a key Cold War outpost are closing, and hemispheric trade deals are opening U.S. markets to Latin American rivals.

The status debate -- whether the island should remain a commonwealth, become a state or gain independence -- remains unresolved. The government's bond rating has been downgraded, and the homicide rate remains three times the U.S. national average.

Political analyst Juan Manuel García Passalacqua said Calderón succeeded in fighting corruption and focusing on the poor but failed to adequately address violence or political divisions. He called her administration "disastrous."

"It has been disastrous because this person is a Pollyanna that lives in a world that doesn't exist," García Passalacqua said. "She has been unable to govern because she has a total incapacity to face reality. What she has achieved is to have Puerto Rico in the middle of anarchy."

Calderón, who has gone through four police commissioners in her four years, said she has been committed to fighting crime since she came into office. Though the homicide rate has risen, an effect of the drug trade between South America and the United States, the incidence of other crimes has decreased.

Calderón said she is frustrated by the politicization of the island and cited opposition last year to her proposed anti-violence public-education campaign. Opponents protested that the campaign, assembled by advertising and public-relations companies free of charge, amounted to political advertising for Calderón and the Popular Democratic Party.

She said Puerto Ricans must ask themselves what kind of a society they want to share.

"It's time to take a hard look at ourselves and step further from partisan politics and from all these differences and all these confrontations and look at what joins us together," she said. "What are the common denominators that are more important than the differences?"

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