Politics adds PR challenge

BY SUSAN KIM | SAN JUAN, P.R. | November 4, 1998


SAN JUAN, P.R. (Nov. 4, 1998) -- The memory of Hurricane Georges' fury

is still visible in Puerto Rico's capital: broken stoplights dangling over

highways, boarded-up windows in highrise office buildings, piles of debris

on street corners, shattered neon signs, long lines of people at

distribution centers and shelters.

But it is the less visible obstacles that are challenging those trying to

organize a united storm recovery effort here. As Puerto Rico prepares for a

statehood vote Dec. 13, strong political divisions between the island's

leaders could move the focus away from helping those in need.

At least one religious alliance, LaConferencia de Religiosos de Puerto

Rico, has publicly urged the government to delay the upcoming vote. Those

trying to coordinate an interfaith response to Hurricane Georges seem to

agree.

"Political issues are definitely affecting people here who are trying to

work together," said Shirley Norman, a Church World Service disaster

consultant who has been leading efforts to organize an interfaith coalition

to help meet long-term needs on the island. "For example, people are afraid

that, if they're seen working with a person who's known for a particular

political stance, they'll be perceived as having the same views, and their

community won't trust them anymore."

In the upcoming vote, Puerto Ricans will have five choices: statehood,

the current territory status, complete independence, an associated

republic, or "none of the above," a category recently added to the ballot

for those who believe that the populace is simply not ready for a vote

right now.

Peter Rivera, a San Juan resident who works as a bellhop, said that he

believes the vote should be delayed while recovery efforts proceed. "Since

I live in San Juan, which wasn't as heavily damaged as the mountain

communities, people think I haven't been affected by the hurricane," he

said. "Well, everyone on the island has been affected. For example, crime

has gone way up since the streetlights aren't working."

Two weeks ago, as Rivera walked a few blocks from a convenience store in

downtown San Juan where he had purchasing a gallon of milk, he was mugged

at gunpoint. "Someone hit me on the head with a bottle. I was knocked out

on the sidewalk and some nurses from the Red Cross helped me get to the

emergency room," he said.

"I still won't go out at night. There are a lot of people out there who

are desperate. The streets are still dark in so many places."

As Rivera talked with volunteers from the American Red Cross and Church

World Service, and with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) staff

who were staying at his hotel, he said he learned even more about the

thousands of the people still without water, utilities, and food. "I think

the vote should be postponed," he said. "There are people who are using the

situation to their advantage. I really don't think we're ready for such a

referendum right now."

Rafael Moreno, a Pentecostal pastor based in San Juan, is also concerned

about throwing a large political decision on a population that is already

depressed and worried. "Any government with common sense would postpone any

vote right now, whether about statehood or not. People are in despair. If

the vote does happen, we should resolve to work together -- as a state, a

commonwealth, whatever," he said.


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