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New Puerto Rico Governor Faces Challenges Anibal Acevedo Vila, Who Succeeds Sila Calderon, Hopes Opposing Parties Can Work Together To Strengthen The Troubled Commonwealth.
Matthew Hay Brown, Sentinel Staff Writer
2 January 2005
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- After four years in the governor's mansion here, Sila Calderon called the job of presiding over this Caribbean U.S. territory "a very lonely position." Her successor, Anibal Acevedo Vila, is about to find out just how lonely it can get.
After a bitterly close race, followed by a recount and court challenges that have hardened political division, Acevedo Vila will be inaugurated in ceremonies today in San Juan. He enters La Fortaleza as the first governor in the 52-year history of commonwealth government to face both a Legislature and a delegate to Congress of the opposing party.
After months of confrontation between Acevedo Vila's Popular Democratic Party and the New Progressive Party, observers here are predicting a difficult term for the 42-year-old attorney -- and for this U.S. territory of 3.9 million.
"What we can expect is gridlock in the politics and anarchy in the streets," warned political analyst Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua. "The island is split down the middle."
Acevedo Vila is more optimistic. After four years in Congress, where he said he saw Republicans and Democrats working together for the good of the nation, he said "shared government" presents an opportunity for a new era of cooperation across party lines.
"What the people of Puerto Rico decided is we have to sit down, the political parties and the different sectors of our society, and come up with a common agenda," he said in a post-election interview at Popular Democratic Party headquarters in San Juan. "Deadlock is not what the people of Puerto Rico want. They want dialogue; they want a new attitude; they want a real commitment to move forward with the best ideas regardless of who proposed them."
But developing a common agenda will likely be difficult while the island remains so deeply divided about its relationship with the United States.
Acevedo Vila's Popular Democratic Party supports maintaining the commonwealth relationship with the United States. The New Progressive Party, which won majorities in the island House and Senate, wants Puerto Rico to become the 51st state of the union. The Puerto Rican Independence Party, which won one seat in both the House and Senate, seeks sovereignty.
Nor can the parties agree even on how to address the issue. Acevedo Vila wants to convene a constitutional assembly that would develop a solution to present to voters for submission to Congress. The New Progressive Party wants to hold a series of referendums in which the voters would choose among several options.
New Progressive Party Sen. Kevin McClintock, set to be president of the Senate in the 2005 session, calls Acevedo Vila's approach "dead on arrival."
New Progressive Party leaders already have said they intend to convert their campaign platform into legislation, which would include reversing some measures implemented by the Calderon administration.
"We realize that in some of the areas of the platforms, there's 50, 70, 80 percent parts of the platform that are compatible between the two major parties," McClintock said. "I hope that everybody realizes that the political campaign is over, and now we have to govern. Each one has to understand the roles of the others."
Acevedo Vila becomes governor with Puerto Rico at a crossroads. Tax breaks that once lured American investment are expiring; military bases are closing; and hemispheric trade deals are opening U.S. markets to Latin American rivals.
He takes responsibility for a troubled public-education system, double-digit unemployment, per-capita income at one-third that of the United States and a homicide rate three times as high.
He said his first order of business will be addressing public finances, pursuing tax reform and reducing government bureaucracy.
"And then crime, education, jobs," he said. "Those three, to me, are very much integrated."
Recognized as a shrewd politician -- he managed the narrow victory in the face of near-universal agreement among polls that former governor Pedro Rossello would win by a wide margin -- Acevedo Vila has the experience of a lifetime in and around government.
The son of a former senator and judge, he studied law at the University of Puerto Rico and at Harvard University and clerked at the Puerto Rico Supreme Court before becoming a legislative adviser to Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon in 1989.
Three years later, Acevedo Vila ran for office, winning a seat in the island House of Representatives and ultimately rising to minority leader of the House and president of the Popular Democratic Party.
Running with Calderon in 2000, Acevedo Vila was elected the island's nonvoting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. He boasts of winning unprecedented levels of federal funding for the island during his four years in Washington.
By beating Rossello, he becomes the first governor of Puerto Rico born after the creation of the commonwealth in 1952. About the same age as McClintock and Luis Fortuno, his New Progressive Party successor in Congress, Acevedo Vila sees himself as part of a new generation of leaders.
"I think this whole, what people sometimes call a mess, I don't think it's a mess," he said. "I think it's an opportunity for Puerto Rico to grow in terms of democracy."
The first governor since the creation of the commonwealth to work with a congressional delegate of another party, he anticipates cordial relations with Fortuno.
"The agenda for the next four years is an agenda in which I don't see why we cannot work together," he said. "We're talking about the new transportation bill; we're talking about education; we're talking about Medicare; we're talking about Medicaid. I think on those issues, easily, Fortuno and myself are going to work together."
Relations with the Legislature may be more difficult.
"But again, I'm sure that there's going to be more agreement than disagreement," he said. "And the people of Puerto Rico are going to be watching. If I oppose an idea from the Legislature just because it was proposed by the NPP, people are not going to be happy with me. If they oppose something I propose just because I am the governor and I am from the other party, people are not going to be happy with them."
It was in that spirit, he said, that he appointed a statehooder and an independentista to his transition committee, and plans to include officials from outside the Popular Democratic Party in his Cabinet.
But in Washington -- where Fortuno, a Republican who helped rally the Hispanic vote for President Bush, is likely to enjoy some influence -- and in San Juan, Acevedo Vila may have little choice but to seek cooperation.
"He's going to go through a very difficult time in terms of his appointments with the statehood party controlling the Legislature," said former Sen. Manuel Rodriguez Orellana, secretary of the Puerto Rican Independence Party for North American affairs.
Calderon said Acevedo Vila is up to the challenge.
"He's a very intelligent and capable person," she said. "He has a good background in politics. He should be able to handle a very sensitive situation."
Acevedo Vila said he is ready to get to work.
""I'm going to put all my energy and my youth but also this experience to bring a new style," he said. "I'm not governor of Puerto Rico because I represent the style of leadership that we have used for the last 30 or 40 years. I'm governor precisely because I represent something completely new and completely different."
Matthew Hay Brown can be reached at email@example.com or 787-729-9072.