Acevedo Vila Takes Two Wrong Steps

by John Marino

March 14, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOThe Calderón administration, and in particular Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, took two huge missteps this week that undercut its stated intention of protecting Puerto Rico's image across the rest of the United States.

Acevedo Vilá and Economic Development Secretary Milton Segarra first demanded that National Geographic apologize for its portrayal of the island in its current edition, a request that makes the commonwealth look as if it is barely tolerant of such democratic ideals as freedom of the press.

Then on Tuesday night, Acevedo Vilá used a five-minute "special orders" speech on the House floor to attack the corruption scandals of the past administration, just days before former Gov. Pedro Rosselló is set to return to Puerto Rico to start his third run for La Fortaleza in earnest.

He followed up the speech with a "dear colleague" letter to fellow members of Congress in which he reiterated his attacks on the corruption in the Rosselló administration.

The resident commissioner said he undertook the move to tell members of Congress "what had happened in Puerto Rico and that we now have a clean government," according to local news reports.

But critics rightly countered that the speech and letter brought petty local politics into the halls of the nation's capital -- a move that by itself sullies Puerto Rico's image on a national level. 

The brouhaha over the National Geographic portrayal of Puerto Rico has more to do with local insecurities than anything penned by Washington journalist Andrew Cockburn in his article: "True colors: Divided loyalties in Puerto Rico."

I will criticize the piece for its meandering nature, for the way it tantalizes the reader with several potential interesting aspects of Puerto Rico but never really fully explores any of them.

But Cockburn defended his work by telling local journalists: "I thought Puerto Rico was a terrific, wonderful place full of interesting people. I was intrigued by its cultural diversity, which I tried to point up in the article."

Cockburn not only captured that diversity, but a lot of the aspects that make Puerto Rico wonderful. 

The author, actually, did have a lot nice to say about Puerto Rico -- mentioning, among other things, the island contribution to the Hispanic explosion in American pop culture as well as local attempts to preserve the many facets of its centuries-old culture.

But they have gone unmentioned in the barrage of local media reports critical of the article that focus on the author's interviews with junkies, independence supporters and tax dodgers. Are critics really implying that neither of the above exist, somewhat visibly, on the island?

The controversy first erupted on local English talk radio, when callers expressed outrage over what they considered the article's "negative portrayal."   

Many, rather than taking their ire out on the venerable National Geographic, took aim instead at the Calderón administration for "fueling the misconceptions" of the author.

Statehood politicians pounced on the fury and likewise chastised Calderón for not scuttling the article's publication. This is politicking gone mad, which could give anyone overhearing such chatter the impression that the commonwealth form of government is a carry-over from the old Soviet Union.

But unfortunately, Acevedo Vilá and Segarra allowed themselves to be egged on and completely overreacted to the situation.

The Puerto Rico Tourism Co. has every right to cancel a $26,000 ad it had planned for the magazine's May edition. And commonwealth officials can demand all the apologies they want.

But these efforts are counterproductive. A letter to the editor -- plus running the ad -- would have accomplished much more to boost the commonwealth's image than whining about the coverage Puerto Rico has already gotten.

After all, there is an old saying that goes, "Any press is good press."

Likewise, as a member of Congress – members are after all politicians -- Acevedo Vilá can attack political opponents, indeed, probably has to to keep his job. But he should not use Congressional resources to blast the political opposition back home.

Critics called the move unprecedented.

At a press conference, former Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barceló said Acevedo Vilá "discredited Puerto Rico. I have never seen a Congressman talking on the floor about the gossip of their state."

Jeffrey Farrow, Clinton White House liaison to Puerto Rico for eight years, termed the move "incredible."

"I can't recall a member of the House using the House floor to politically and personally attack an election opponent before," Farrow told local reporters.

In his letter, Acevedo Vilá said the legitimate statehood movement was "tainted" by "a cancer of corrupt leadership."

"Although Mr. Rosselló has not been indicted, the extent of the corruption leads to one or two possible explanations: he was part of the corruption scheme, or he is such an inept administrator that he should not be trusted again with the duty of managing a government."

Given the steady stream of corruption cases during the previous administration prosecuted by federal authorities, Acevedo Vilá has a good argument. But he needs to make it to residents in Puerto Rico, not to his House colleagues.

In not doing so, the resident commissioner has once again made the impression that he has yet, after two years, to get in tune with the ways of Washington. 

John Marino, City 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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