August 12, 2005
Copyright © 2005 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
Puerto Ricos "Meltdown:" Can It Be Stopped?
With a stagnant economy, with constant strikes and work stoppages that interrupt services and the delivery of fuel and staples, with unemployment for the year-to-date averaging near 11%, with utility and food costs rising at a time when the Governor is proposing tax increases to ameliorate the staggering budget deficits that previous administrations have created, with the island government paralyzed by partisan wrangling and with San Juan murder rates more than twice as high as any mainland city; for these reasons, and more, there is continuing an exodus from the island that has brought the Puerto Rican population on the mainland to near equivalency with that remaining on the island.
Each day, press accounts quote islanders who have finally decided that Florida, New Jersey or Illinois will offer a better and safer existence for themselves and their families than Loiza, Ponce or Mayaguez. They tell reporters that the island is in a state of meltdown and have concluded that things are unlikely to improve any time soon. Reasons most often cited for leaving Puerto Rico are the search for job opportunities, improved personal safety, and better education for their children.
In a recent two-part Orlando Sentinel series on crime and drug trafficking in Puerto Rico, Matthew Hay Brown paints a gloomy picture about life on the island, especially for those living in or near the public housing projects that dot the major cities. The sad accounts of innocents cut down in the crossfire among competing drug gangs, and the grim statistics on murders in general -- now approaching the 800 victims per year average of previous years -- are causing island residents concern over their safety as they drive city streets and stroll along previously safe sidewalks.
What is more depressing is that this situation has plagued the island for years, ever since Puerto Rico became a transshipment base for cocaine and heroin coming from Colombia and other points farther South, headed for mainland U.S.A. But the problem for Puerto Rico is more serious than merely being a way station for international drug movement. Too much of the illegal substances remain on the island, fostering a pernicious Boricua crack and heroin market. Front page stories of killings and "drug busts" are daily fare for besieged residents. Open-air drug markets are well known to locals but often operate within the gaze of police.
Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá acknowledges the crisis, calling it the islands "number-one problem." So much was he concerned about the crime waves impact on his administration that he hired as police superintendent Pedro Toledo, who was Pedro Rossellós top cop during his administration from 1993 to 2001. The previous administration of Gov. Sila Calderón saw four police superintendents in its four years in office. Most observers acknowledge that Toledo has improved morale in the department, however the crime wave continues, even though high profile raids on drug rings are intensifying. Toledo says that with increased training and more sophisticated equipment his force will become more professional and effective.
Both houses of the Legislature are in the control of the New Progressive Party (NPP) while La Forteleza is controlled by Gov. Acevedos Popular Democratic Party (PDP). As the social and economic problems mount, the rival political parties seem more interested in checking each others initiatives than working together to bring some relief to the beleaguered island. A prime example is the budget process which still waits for resolution after months of thrusting and parrying in the duel between the Capitol and Governors office.
The Governors budget was "dead on arrival" when presented last month to a House of Representatives that had been busily drafting one of its own one that did not remotely respond to Gov. Acevedos priorities. It also provided considerably less funding than Acevedo requested. Then, to no ones surprise, the Governor vetoed the measure, leaving him to operate on the existing budget, which is even less.
The political imbroglio has also dealt a blow to any hopes for a resolution of Puerto Ricos political status, at least for the next three years. In one of the rare examples of political cooperation, Senators and Representative of all three parties passed a measure outlining immediate steps to be taken to present a petition to the U.S. Congress for a process of self-determination. The governor spoke highly of the degree of collegiality existing between his office and the Legislature during the drafting process.
Then, to everyones amazement, Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá took out his pen, not to sign the legislation into law, but to veto it.
And so it goes. The "drip, drip, drip" that one hears from Fajardo to Aibonito, from Guayama to Aguadilla, from Cabo Rojo to Humacao is not the summer rain, it is the melting away of Puerto Ricos prosperity and way of life. Politicians say it is a short term situation that will improve. Business leaders say that the island can "turn the corner" if reforms are instituted. But for more and more Puerto Ricans, the only words that they want to hear is "Welcome Aboard, our flight to the mainland today will be approximately three hours and the weather along the way is good."
Can Puerto Rican leaders stop the meltdown? What is your opinion?
Please vote above!