The Contrasting Views Of Rosselló

by John Marino

March 21, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOIf former Gov. Pedro Rosselló proved anything upon his return to the island last week, it was this: he is still a political force to be reckoned with.

Thousands -- many estimates put the figure above 50,000 -- of supporters turned out Saturday to welcome home the former governor.

They crowded roadways throughout metropolitan San Juan -- from the international airport in Isla Verde to the Hiram Bithorn baseball stadium in Hato Rey. It was, in the words of one political commentator, the biggest political rally in Puerto Rican history outside of an election year.

The former governor showed that during his two-year sojourn from Puerto Rico he had lost none of the political skill that catapulted him to La Fortaleza a decade ago and lead to his crushing reelection victory in 1996 -- in which he became the only governor in Puerto Rico history to win election with more than 1 million votes.

Rosselló still showed himself to be a direct, clear speaker with the ability to hit responsive chords across large spectrums of the public. And he still is a master of the simple gesture, with the ability to energize a crowd by pumping his fist into the air or flashing a "thumbs up" sign. When he danced la macarena, the crowd got delirious.

Rosselló, too, also showed that he lost none of his cockiness -- a trait that brings cheers from supporters and angry cries from opponents.

"Here I am," Rosselló challenged political opponents and law enforcement authorities. "If they want to arrest me, they can arrest me."

The former governor could not have hoped for a better welcome, and some close to him say the outpouring of support genuinely moved him. The rally brought to mind the heady campaign rallies of 1996, when the former governor was at the height of his popularity.

After Rosselló’s homecoming, there should be no doubt that he will go on to win the New Progressive Party nomination to be its gubernatorial candidate even though a primary is not set to take place until November between the former governor and NPP President Carlos Pesquera.

Pesquera continues to stick in the race, but it’s doubtful whether he will stay a contender until November. Most party leaders have thrown their support to Rosselló. More importantly, Saturday proved that the statehood rank and file backs the former governor.

Rosselló’s political power was also evident from the reaction of his chief political rival -- Gov. Calderón.

When Rosselló first announced his intention to return to the island’s political scene, Calderón said it would be an "aberration" given the fact that he oversaw "the most corrupt administration in the history of Puerto Rico." But as the date of Rosselló’s return neared, Calderón repeatedly declined to comment on the former governor -- a stance she continues to take through today.

Her Popular Democratic Party, however, launched a series of attack ads on the corruption in the Rosselló administration. "Everybody knew except Rosselló," its headline read. The ad blitz was a clear indication that the PDP is taking Rosselló seriously.

The governor also referred this week a report penned by her anti-corruption Blue Ribbon Committee to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. The report charged that Rosselló administration officials broke commonwealth tax law and usurped the power of the Legislature by granting millions of dollars in tax breaks to Section 936 companies in exchange for cash grants to a local economic development fund.

Not everyone was pleased by Rosselló’s return last week. Many public figures and private citizens are horrified by the corruption uncovered stemming from the Rosselló years. One group ran an ad campaign — which basically said "Give the finger to Rosselló" — that focused on the corruption cases among former members of his administration.

Indeed, Saturday showed that there are two distinct visions of Pedro Rosselló. Supporters see a man of action, who was able to deliver huge infrastructure projects while simultaneously undertaking sweeping government reforms that sold off money-losing operations and remade the manner in which the government delivered essential services, such as healthcare.

Detractors, meanwhile, see the former governor as someone who had grown increasingly authoritarian and inflexible in office. Worse, they say that Rosselló either knowingly looked away from the corruption taking place among members of his administration or was such a poor administrator he had no idea it was happening.

After Saturday, it appears as if the public is pretty evenly split between these contrasting views of Rosselló. It will be a close election, and a brutal one. Calderón and her predecessor appear to genuinely dislike each other.

Calderón faults Rosselló for purposefully leaving the commonwealth government in fiscal chaos, not to mention trying to extend his authority by making a slew of nominations to important government entities in the waning days of his administration.

Rosselló, meanwhile, believes Calderón since taking power has unnecessarily tried to taint his legacy and destroy his reputation.

Political observers are already bracing for what they say could be the dirtiest election yet here.

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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