The Drive To Override Acevedo Vilá On Status

by John Marino

April 8, 2005
Copyright © 2005 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. A mere 100 days in office, Gov. Acevedo Vilá this week very nearly made history -- becoming the first governor in modern Puerto Rico history to have his veto overridden by the Legislature.

A late night arm-twisting session at La Fortaleza on Monday stopped two Popular Democratic Party lawmakers -- Rep. Jorge Colberg Toro and former House Speaker Carlos Vizcarrondo -- from following through with pledges earlier in the day to join in the override effort. But it could be just a matter of time before they or other PDP lawmakers break ranks to override the Acevedo Vilá veto of a status bill agreed upon by the three political parties.

What is clear is that the Acevedo Vilá veto on the bill infuriated both New Progressive and Puerto Rican Independence party leaders, and the era of "shared government" is now officially over.

"It’s obvious that the effort to find common ground was sabotaged by Aníbal Acevedo Vilá and the Popular Democratic Party delegation," said Sen. Pedro Rosselló, the NPP president. "Now we are free to strictly follow the stances outlined in our party platform."

Both PIP and NPP lawmakers called for an override of the veto. A two-thirds majority in both Houses is needed. While the NPP has sufficient votes in the Senate, they need one PDP lawmaker in the House to override the veto.

But while the governor’s veto survived an initial override threat, Acevedo Vilá took a pounding for vetoing legislation he had indicated he would support. Most PIP and NPP leaders basically called him a liar.

"The people now know how much consideration to give to Aníbal’s words," PIP President Rubén Berríos said.

Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño simply said the veto was Acevedo Vilá’s "first major blunder."

Acevedo Vilá, however, probably made history this week anyway, despite the fact that his veto, so far, has survived an override challenge. He could very well be the only governor in Puerto Rico to veto legislation, not so much for what the legislation says, but for what opposition politicians said about it.

He cited comments by Rosselló, Fortuño and former Gov. Carlos Romero Barceló in announcing his veto, saying the comments showed that the NPP leaders lacked the "moral and political commitment" to back the a constitutional assembly as an option if the federal government did not act on status in two years.

Both Fortuño and Rosselló brushed the governor’s charge, insisting that the legislation agreed upon by all three parities had not been changed. In fact, the clause concerning the constituent assembly option was penned by PDP lawmakers.

"From the moment it was passed and ratified until now, nothing has changed," Rosselló said. "How come Acevedo Vilá is saying it’s not good now when nothing has changed?"

The status bill was really a compromise forged by the PIP between opposing status bills filed by the NPP and the PDP.

The NPP bill proposed a referendum this summer in which Puerto Ricans would vote on whether or not to call on the president and Congress to spell out the viable decolonization options for Puerto Rico. The petition says the definitions would be used in a Congressionally binding plebiscite containing non-colonial and non-territorial status options.

The PDP plan called for islanders to choose in a summer plebiscite which method they wanted to use to resolve the status dispute -- a constituent assembly or a petition to Congress on a federally backed vote.

The final compromise bill basically called for the NPP plan to move ahead first, and if Congress and the White House failed to act within two years, it called for the Legislature to enact a vote over how islanders wished to resolve status -- through a constituent assembly, a plebiscite or other options, which was similar to the original PDP proposal.

The clause concerning the constituent assembly, penned by PDP lawmakers, reads: "Having passed 90 days after the deadline and if Congress does not reply, or if it replies declining before the deadline, this Legislature commits itself to legislating so the people of Puerto Rico choose the procedural mechanism, including among others, a status constituent assembly or a Congresssionally binding plebiscite, that it will use to propose to the U.S. government the status alternatives that are chosen by the majority."

Nobody really believes that the governor vetoed the bill because the above clause was unclear. Only Romero Barceló, who no longer holds public office, has been quoted recently as saying the legislation did not commit the Legislature to make the constituent assembly an option to resolve status if Congress failed to act.

More likely, the governor, listening to powerful party leaders like former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón, came to the realization that pro-commonwealth forces could only be harmed in trying to get Washington to act on status.

Both the federal executive branch and Congress, through the White House Task Force on Status under former President Bill Clinton and the Young Bill, have already called unconstitutional the PDP’s definition of commonwealth as a "bilateral pact" between Puerto Rico and the United States. Both branches of the federal government called the current relationship territorial, or colonial.

PDP proposals to enhance commonwealth, which would allow the island to enter treaties with foreign countries and decide which federal laws apply here, also have little chance of finding acceptance in Washington, D.C.

The governor has said he would file a substitute status bill replacing the clause on the constituent assembly with language "guaranteeing" that the constituent assembly is an option. But the NPP majority has already vowed not to consider the new proposal.

It will attempt to override the governor’s veto next week, and if that fails, it will approve a concurrent resolution in the House and Senate calling on Congress and the White House to resolve the island’s status dilemma by providing non-territorial and non-colonial alternatives to island residents.

The immediate fall-out over the status veto, however, is that political hardball, rather than a search for consensus, will rule the day with one major party controlling the executive branch of the commonwealth government and the other major party controlling the Legislature.

John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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