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Family Feud II


January 20, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

In his inaugural speech, Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá made a sweeping call to consensus and unity beyond partisan political affiliation.

"Let’s shed the colors that divide us and embrace the colors of the flag that unites us," he urged us all.

It was motherhood-and-apple-pie rhetoric but it was amply well-received by a population clearly exhausted after a long, divisive political year. Perhaps unwittingly, the governor was coining his own version of the American motto E pluribus unum, Out of many, one.

Yet, the visual image of the inaugural ceremony didn’t match the soundtrack. A multitude of red-and-white draped Popular Democratic Party (PDP) followers filled the site. And not a single American flag waved in the sea of Puerto Rican flags, not a welcoming sight for the roughly half of the population that had voted for the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (NPP).

As the governor himself pressed the lone-star emblem to his chest at the end of his speech, there was no question which flag he was referring to when he urged us to "embrace the colors of the flag that unites us," and it wasn’t the Stars & Stripes.

In our first column in this series, published before the dust had settled on the tortuous process of ballot recount and judicial crossfire, we argued that everything that had happened in the quirky election year 2004–the campaign, the election and, more importantly, the election’s aftermath–pointed to a drastic polarization of political forces in Puerto Rico.

The three or four ideological blocs that have traditionally defined the island’s political landscape, we said, are quickly merging into two big opposing blocs: those who feel American beyond the legal fact of their citizenship, and those who don’t feel American in spite of it.

The final result of the election confirmed that assessment.

After all the votes were counted and recounted, including the controversial three-cross pivazos with which Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP) supporters voted for their party and also for the PDP gubernatorial and resident commissioner candidates, the final result confirmed the preliminary tally of election night: the NPP garnered 16,000 more straight-party votes than its rival the PDP, won the majority in both Senate and House of Representatives, won 42 out of 78 municipalities and the resident commissioner post, but its gubernatorial candidate and former Gov. Pedro Rosselló was defeated by 3,500 votes, i.e., less than two-tenths of 1% of the almost two million votes cast.

There is no question that on balance, it was the droves of pro-independence voters crossing party lines that delivered the governorship to Aníbal Acevedo Vilá in spite of the overwhelming NPP sweep.

The question is what does that tell us?

The answer advanced by many commentators that those votes were a rejection of NPP gubernatorial candidate Pedro Rosselló is as simplistic as it is obvious. The inference those commentators want us to draw is that people rejected Rosselló because of the record of corruption of some members of his past administration.

That may very well have been a factor in a number of voters’ minds, but hardly a deciding factor for all the thousands of independentistas who apparently crossed party lines at the last moment.

Unless one were to accept the ridiculous contention that all the pollsters were wrong throughout the year, all the way down to a few weeks before the elections, one must look somewhere else for the explanation. The corruption by some members of Rosselló’s administration had been a known factor for years. It was hardly a last-minute revelation and was therefore an unlikely last-minute motivation to change from what likely voters had told the pollsters in numerous polls throughout the year was their intention come Election Day.

The issue that did make a last-minute appearance in the campaign was Rosselló’s promise not only to work on the status issue if he were elected but to actually achieve statehood in four years.

That did it. That triggered the onslaught.

There’s nothing that galvanizes the anti-American sector’s sentiment in Puerto Rico more than the imminence of significant movement toward statehood. The two previous electoral defeats Rosselló had suffered in the 1993 and 1998 referenda on status are examples of it. Although he was enjoying unprecedented political support for his performance as governor during those years, the people rejected his status initiatives.

The general election last November may have been the third time Rosselló galvanized his political opposition into one solid bloc to oppose his chances of making good on his promise to bring statehood.

Even his political opposition grants Rosselló’s ability to deliver on his promises. So, a promise to make the island a state in four years, no matter how far-fetched, was something for all antistatehood forces to rally against.

A good half of the pro-independence voters voted for Aníbal Acevedo to the point that the PIP didn’t receive the number of votes required to remain registered as a political party in Puerto Rico.

The growth of the pro-statehood NPP over the past few years to become the island’s largest party is an undisputed fact. During the same period, the base of the pro-commonwealth PDP has been eroded. Meanwhile, the PIP has remained stagnant.

In the past two elections, it has become clear the PDP can’t win without the electoral support of the pro-independence voters. (See column "Wake Up Silent Majority," CB Dec. 23.) That, in turn, has forced the PDP to cater to them between one election and the next. The 2000 elections and former Gov. Sila Calderón’s policies and actions during her tenure, including her administration’s positions on Vieques and the U.S. Navy’s exit from Roosevelt Roads, are clear examples of this.

But nothing compares to the open call for independentista support by PDP candidate Acevedo Vilá in these past elections and the response to that call in unprecedented numbers.

Those pro-independence forces won’t let Gov. Acevedo Vilá’s term go by without presenting their IOUs, including pressuring him to move on the issue of status during his term. Informed sources within both the PDP and the PIP confirm this assessment, given, as it is, that both parties’ platforms have similar proposals regarding status. They also confirm that, unlike his predecessor, Gov. Acevedo Vilá won’t stall a status process. He knows, they say, that in a post-U.S. Navy era, the days of the traditional commonwealth as a viable status option are numbered. Not just because the traditional PDP base has become increasingly disenchanted with it, but also because from a practical electoral politics standpoint, the PDP simply must cater to the pro-independence voters in order to prevail.

Against that background, Acevedo Vilá could very well seize the historical moment to finally move the PDP toward the free association option. During his campaign, the slogan Estamos listos (We’re ready) may have referred to his capacity to govern despite his youth. But when he teasingly repeated the slogan over and over again during his inaugural speech, he seemed to refer to Puerto Rico’s readiness to take the next big step toward self-government.

Meanwhile, last week, former Gov. Rosselló publicly admitted the main motivation behind his bid for the Senate presidency was to advance his campaign promise of achieving a final resolution to the status issue within the next four years. Granted, he intends to ensure all promises contained in the NPP platform are implemented since, according to him, the NPP won the election.

But when asked why specifically he needed the position of Senate president for that, instead of simply leading his party’s Legislative Conference as NPP president, Rosselló was very clear that in order to advance his statehood promise in Washington he needs to be able to project his leadership from an official elected position, such as Senate president. In the States, after all, party chairmen are merely staff employees. Official Washington can be very official when it comes to paying official attention to state officials, you know.

Thus the stage is set, the line drawn in the sand. It’s Hatfields vs. McCoys, criollo style, in this century-old family feud whose day of deliverance may be closer at hand than we think.

The author is vice president & editor in chief of Casiano Communications.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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