The Washington Diplomat / June 2001
By Larry Luxner
He's not an ambassador, since Puerto Rico isn't a country. And he's not a full voting member of Congress, since Puerto Rico isn't a state either.
Like the tropical Caribbean island he represents, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá falls somewhere in between. As resident commissioner in Washington, the 40-year-old lawmaker is the sole elected official in Congress who speaks for the 3.8 million inhabitants of Puerto Rico, a U.S. Commonwealth.
And these days, he's got plenty of issues to keep him busy -- from fighting layoffs in the island's once-powerful manufacturing sector to the bitter controversy over the Navy's continued bombing of the offshore Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
The Washington Diplomat caught up with Acevedo during a recent trip to Mexico City, where and 11 other members of the House of Representatives were engaged in two days of meetings with President Vicente Fox and other top Mexican officials.
Asked to assess his first four months on Capitol Hill, Acevedo said he's spent much of his time up until now explaining Puerto Rico's priorities to fellow Democrats, let alone to Republicans.
"We need a new alternative to Section 936. We need it badly," said Acevedo, referring to a clause in the Internal Revenue Code which for years exempted U.S. companies from paying federal income taxes on profits earned by their manufacturing subsidiaries in Puerto Rico. The job-creating incentive was abolished five years ago by the Clinton administration -- largely at the urging of Acevedo's pro-statehood predecessor, Carlos Romero Barceló.
"Between 1996 and 2000, we lost 17,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector. And so far this year, companies have announced another 5,000 layoffs," he said. "We don't have any incentives for attracting investment. So now we're crafting a new proposal, which is being worked on by Ramon Cantero Frau, the new secretary for economic development."
Acevedo, who supports continued Commonwealth status for Puerto Rico rather than statehood or outright independence, said his counterparts in the pro-statehood New Progressive Party "will have to support us on this, because if they don't, the people will blame them. They betrayed the jobs back in 1996, when Romero Barceló said Puerto Rico didn't need Section 936."
The issue of political status has overshadowed Puerto Rico ever since the former Spanish colony was invaded by U.S. troops in the 1898 Spanish-American War. Granted U.S. citizenship in 1917 and Commonwealth status in 1952, the island's inhabitants have nevertheless bickered over their island's status for years.
Even though three plebiscites have been held on the issue, voters continue to favor continued Commonwealth status over statehood by a slim margin. And a small but vocal segment of society, about 5%, pushes complete independence for Puerto Rico -- arguing that the United States will never accept Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico as the 51st state and that the island is better off as an independent nation with control over its own destiny.
Interestingly, Puerto Rico's political status still comes up annually at the United Nations, where the UN Decolonization Committee -- led by Venezuela and Cuba -- perennially argue for Puerto Rican "self-determination." The Puerto Rican Socialist Party even has its own "embassy" in Havana and has taken to issuing its own Puerto Rican passports, though no one besides Cuba recognizes such an entity.
Statehooders, for their part, argue that if Puerto Rico were a state, it would be entitled to two senators and no less than 13 representatives, based on its population -- and that even though Puerto Ricans would be subject to federal taxes, their quality of life would improve.
In the middle are Commonwealth supporters, who say they have "lo mejor de dos mundos" -- the best of both worlds.
Acevedo, a leader in the island's pro-Commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, says he's used to the endless debate over Puerto Rico's status.
"My father was a state senator from Bayamón, so I grew up with politics in my house," he says. "After graduating from the University of Puerto Rico Law School, I clerked one year for a Supreme Court justice, then got a master's in law from Harvard."
Acevedo returned to San Juan, where he and his wife Luisa Gandara raised two children, Gabriela (now 11) and Juan Carlos (10).
Acevedo finally decided to run for resident commissioner, and last November, defeated the highly controversial Romero Barceló by a 49% to 46% margin. He is now one of four Capitol Hill lawmakers of Puerto Rican origin; the others are Nydia Velásquez and Josés Serrano, both of New York, and Luís Gutiérrez of Illinois. All four are Democrats.
"People ask me how much influence I have in Congress," said Acevedo. "I can file and co-sponsor bills, and I can speak on the floor, but I cannot vote on the floor. Nevertheless, Congress knows they have to listen to the resident commissioner when it comes to Puerto Rican issues."
And the biggest of those issues at the moment is Vieques.
Passions have been running high since April 1999, when Navy bombers, which have long used the 20-mile-long island for target practice, accidentally killed a civilian, sparking a violent outpouring of anger. All three major parties in Puerto Rico -- the NPP, the PDP and the Puerto Rican Independence Party -- oppose the Navy's presence on Vieques, as do a number of other lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
"Even if the people vote to get the Navy out, they can still stay in Vieques until 2003," said Acevedo. "It's not a national security issue, it's a health and human-rights issue -- and President Bush has to address the issue from this perspective."
Although many Puerto Ricans consider their island part of Latin America, the U.S. flag flies right alongside the Puerto Rican flag at most public buildings, English is widely spoken and the U.S. dollar is the official currency. Most importantly, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and can travel to and from the U.S. mainland without a passport.
Nevertheless, Acevedo said he came to Mexico out of solidarity with his Hispanic colleagues in the House of Representatives.
"We have had our own experiences with immigration," he said. "In the 1930s and 40s, people moved from Puerto Rico to New York, New Jersey and elsewhere looking for better jobs. They were initially mistreated, getting lower-paying jobs and working in deplorable conditions -- except that in our case, it was all legal immigration. But it's not only a problem of legal or not. They were still mistreated.
"The government of Puerto Rico realizes it was responsible also, because the reason they moved away was because there were no opportunities on the island," he said. "Now the Mexican government is aware that they have to deal with this too."
Acevedo said he expects relations between Puerto Rico and Mexico to improve, despite the contention by some Puerto Ricans that Mexico -- which enjoys duty-free trade with the United States under NAFTA -- has "stolen" jobs from relatively high-wage Puerto Rico.
In answer to a question from Acevedo on Puerto Rico's role in regional trade relations, Luís Ernesto Derbez -- the Mexican economics minister -- vowed not to neglect the island.
"The Fox government believes strongly in free trade with the whole world. Some people are concerned with the Caribbean Basin Initiative and how it'll affect U.S.-Mexican trade. I tell them they should not be afraid of this," said Derbez. "If we identify what the strengths and weaknesses are, we can put together a strong trade program and won't be trying to undercut each other. Puerto Rico is an excellent example of this. You have a unique opportunity to really help us do that."