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The Torch Has Been Passed


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

Last week, I attended the inaugural session of the Puerto Rico Senate. My son Juan Eugenio was to make his maiden speech as senator-at large. Memories came rushing back as I watched Kenneth McClintock take his oath as president of the Senate. I had taken the same oath 36 years earlier, under more dramatic circumstances, but ones that essentially presented the same challenge that McClintock and his senators faced on this occasion.

On Jan. 13, 1969, I was to be sworn in as president of the Senate. I was 32 years old at the time and some of the senators of the old guard of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) didn’t take kindly to me. This didn’t include Luis Muñoz Marín but he had kept his hands out of the caucus, wherein a majority of the PDP senators had nominated me for Senate president, to the discomfort of some members of the old guard who, by seniority–some had been in the Senate since the ’40’s–felt they had a right to the position.

On that day, hundreds of populares and statehooders swarmed the corridors and galleries of the Capitol, attracted by rumors that had been flying days before to the effect that the old guard was going to boycott my election as president of the Senate.

As we walked onto the Senate floor, the crowds applauded Muñoz Marín, but they were tense, awaiting some maneuver from the old guard that would block my election as president.

After the session was called to order, Sen. Hipólito Marcano proposed my name for president of the Senate. Duly seconded, Sen. Cancel proposed the nominations be closed, but Sen. Jesús Hernández Sánchez opposed the motion and proceeded to nominate Justo Méndez of the New Progressive Party (NPP) for president of the Senate.

This was contrary to tradition. The PDP had a majority of 15 votes in the Senate and the NPP had only 12 votes. Traditionally, the minority party abstains from proposing a candidate who is bound to lose. The NPP broke with tradition, trying to drive a wedge into the unity of the PDP, which was at stake given the attitude of the old guard.

The first ballot–via secret voting–proved them right. There were 12 votes in my favor, 12 in favor of Justo Méndez and three abstained. A tie, so no one was elected. There had to be a second ballot.

At that moment, Muñoz Marín got up and announced he had voted for me in the first ballot, but would abstain in the second ballot so those who had abstained in the first ballot would assume the responsibility for the election of Justo Méndez in the second ballot.

I then announced I had abstained in the first ballot, because I didn’t want to vote for myself, and I would do so again in the second ballot. This placed the two old guard members who had abstained in the first ballot against the wall. If they abstained again, Justo Méndez would be the next president of the Senate. When the second ballot votes were counted, I received 13 votes and Justo, 12. Party unity had prevailed and I was ushered in as president of the Senate.

The election of Kenneth McClintock wasn’t so dramatic, but it was held under a similar generational challenge from the old guard of his party. Indeed, a more formidable one, because it came from the titular head of the party, Pedro Rosselló. The NPP senators stood tall and, on principle, when they proceeded to vote for McClintock. They were making democracy work as it should, pushing forward in time so new leaders can assume the responsibilities incumbent upon their generation. I felt a sense of déja vu as Kenneth was being sworn in and remembered the words I had spoken in that chamber 36 years before: "I feel in my spirit that this challenge"–to lead the Senate–"is not only for me, but for all the youth of Puerto Rico."

McClintock set the proper tone in his speech. It revealed openness and a disposition to dialogue and compromise, which is essential at times of shared government. It harmonized with Aníbal Acevedo’s Inaugural Speech, which was firmly conciliatory and inclusive. Puerto Rico is all the better for this.

As I left the Senate chamber that day, I felt the generational cycle of change has once again been completed in Puerto Rico and we now are entering a new historical period. As I walked out, the words of President John F. Kennedy in his Inaugural Address, which inspired so many of us into public service, echoed in my mind: "Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage–and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world."

A similar generational change to the one that occurred in President Kennedy’s time in the U.S. now is occurring in Puerto Rico. I was born while Puerto Rico was under the leadership of the generation that came to power in the 1940s: Luis Muñoz Marín, Miguel A. García Méndez, Luis A. Ferré, and Gilberto Concepción de Gracia of the Independence Party.

A generational change occurred when I succeeded Luis Muñoz Marín, Carlos Romero Barceló succeeded Luis A. Ferré, and Rubén Berríos succeeded Gilberto Concepción de Gracia. Pedro Rosselló and Sila Calderón are members of our generation. Aníbal Acevedo, Kenneth McClintock, and José Aponte belong to the new generation that will exercise leadership in Puerto Rico for the next 20 years.

This doesn’t mean those of us who are still around from the previous generation of leaders will cease to exist. We still can contribute a lot to Puerto Rico, but not leading the troops in the front lines of political combat.

The torch has been passed to a new generation of Puerto Ricans, born under the Commonwealth, who knew not the hardships of extreme poverty, are more educated, have suffered the years of unending status disputes, and have the desire to make their contribution to Puerto Rico.

Rafael Hernández Colón is a three-term (12-year) former governor of Puerto Rico (1973-76 and 1985-92). He had earlier served as secretary of Justice (1965-67) and as president of the Senate (1969-72). He was president of the Popular Democratic Party for 19 years.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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