Puerto Rico's new governor inspires hope
BY YVES COLON
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- José Santiago Reillo well remembers
the summer day
11 years ago that the people of La Cantera met Sila María Calderón.
Back then, she was secretary of state and Hurricane Hugo had devastated
of the country. Residents of that swamp in the middle of this city needed help.
There was no electricity in the wooden shacks. The canal that
neighborhood was clogged with garbage. Children were getting sick.
``We had been hearing promises since the beginning of this century,
asked ourselves how this rich lady was going to do anything for us,'' recalled
Reillo, who now serves as president of La Cantera's neighborhood council.
But Calderón came back. And she brought friends with her,
president of Banco Popular of Puerto Rico and the head of the island's largest
chain of supermarkets.
She told residents she was going to open doors the people of La
reach. In the following months, she brought other banks as well as businesses
and universities to the community. She got the 3,500 families there title to their
land. She stayed on, starting a project that recently completed 68 houses, then
raised enough money to build an additional 113 units. Millions of dollars are being
spent to drain the canal.
``She represents our hope and the hope of all poor communities
in Puerto Rico,''
Reillo said. ``She's committed to help us.''
Today, Calderón is Puerto Rico's new governor -- the first
woman elected to that
position -- and what she did for La Cantera she promises to do for the whole
``Now my heart and my efforts are amplified,'' Calderón
said in an interview with
The Herald. ``They encompass the entire island.''
Born in San Juan in 1942, Calderón grew up in relative
privilege and says her
industrialist-developer father instilled in her a deep social conscience and
sensitivity to injustice.
``He always was aware of people who didn't have as much as we
Calderón, 58, who received a bachelor's degree from Manhatanville College in New
York and returned home to continue her studies.
Her father openly admired the social policies of the dominant
Party and its legendary leader, Luis Muñoz Marín, and she naturally followed. He
was a strong-willed man, as she is -- a trait she credits with helping her succeed
in the world of business and politics.
``Being close to him has helped me understand the way a man thinks,''
``That has helped me in a world where men are in charge.''
But there's no denying that Calderón is in charge now.
``The mistake is not to make it look natural,'' Calderón
said. ``It should be
She's known as a contrarian, wearing yellow during the campaign
instead of the
red of the PDP. She said she wanted to tone down the antagonism between her
partisans and former Gov. Pedro Rosselló's pro-statehood New Progressive Party.
She normally wears bright colors, as she did on this day -- a
and matching shoes. And her hair is worn in a simple cut around her face.
Daughter Sila González always remembers it that way.
``People tried to make her over several times, but she won't let
González, 35, one of Calderón's eight children, five of whom are from her
husband's first marriage.
``She's set on the way she looks.''
Calderón sat in her office at La Fortaleza, the governor's
mansion on the edge of
the old city by the bay, speaking comfortably about her life and her role as a
woman leader, along with the major challenges she will face in the next four
years, including the island of Vieques and the issue of statehood for Puerto Rico.
Behind her, wide glass windows overlooked a garden and, beyond,
Sea, its waves crashing against the rocky shore.
La Fortaleza is familiar territory for Calderón, who served
as secretary of state and
chief of staff to Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón. Calderón has brought some of her
own touches to La Fortaleza, decorating every ornate room -- including the
President Kennedy Room, the Blue Room, the Room of Mirrors and The Spanish
Royals Room -- with orchids, which she grows at home.
Her graciousness, however, should not be mistaken for softness.
Margaret Thatcher, the first woman prime minister of Great Britain, who became
known as the Iron Lady.
``She was able to steer the country through difficult times,''
said Calderón, who
met the former prime minister once. ``She had the English work for a common
And Calderón believes it is for the common good of Puerto
Ricans that she's
demanding that the U.S. Navy immediately stop its bombing exercises on the
island of Vieques, off the mainland. She said she plans to go ``as far as
necessary'' in the next two weeks when she meets with the Bush administration
``to obtain what we need.''
She has threatened to remove riot police from the bombing site,
draws protesters, and she opposes a Nov. 6 referendum to let the people of
Vieques vote on the U.S. Navy presence.
Vieques, Calderón said, is a problem for both governments.
For the United States, Calderón said, it is a problem of
human rights because
Vieques has been bombarded for the last 60 years. The people who live on the
island have suffered from the sounds of the explosions, and blame the shelling for
a high incidence of cancer and other illnesses.
Next week, she said, she plans to order cardiovascular studies
Calderón believes firmly in the commonwealth, the arrangement
that has existed
between the United States and Puerto Rico since 1952. Under the arrangement,
Puerto Ricans -- who became U.S. citizens in 1917 -- cannot vote for president
and have no vote in Congress. They pay no federal income tax and receive about
$13 billion in federal funds.
``I'm proud to be a Puerto Rican, and at the same time I cherish
citizenship,'' Calderón said. ``I want our relationship to be permanent.''
But not as a state.
She won the election partly on an anti-statehood platform against
She fashioned a reputation as a woman who could get things done.
Rosselló. It did not hurt her campaign that Rosselló's administration was beset by
scandals and Calderón promised to clean house.
As mayor of San Juan for the last four years, she gained a reputation
for being an
efficient administrator who got the garbage picked up on time and got the
Legislature to pass a law banning open drinking on the streets of this city.
In the process, she fashioned a reputation as both a hard worker
and a woman
who could get things done.
These days, she said, she wakes up about 5 o'clock, reads the
newspapers, then skims through several mainland publications. She gets to the
office before everyone else, a pace that leaves chief of staff César Miranda
``I feel like I'm running a marathon, but at the pace of a 100-meter
Miranda, 60. ``She's moving fast and everyone around her will have to move faster.
She can get that from people around her.''
As a former bank executive who also managed the family's real-estate
Calderón is clear about the role businesses and investments can play in Puerto
Rico, whose nearly four million citizens have the lowest standard of living among
She wants to offer incentives for companies to invest in housing
She also plans to create a drug-czar position in her cabinet, an idea she got from
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
In the last three weeks, she said, she has sent 20 bills to the
housing to education. On Monday, she plans to announce a program to improve
teachers' wages and school management. She plans to earmark $70 million for
textbooks, which are in short supply.
Calderón believes she became governor the same way men
have in the past:
``Campaign very hard, go through a lot of hardship, put what you want into it,
persevere and you win.''
It's pure joy when little girls throughout the country see what
a woman can
accomplish, she said. ``For the ones growing up, they're going to think it's natural
for a woman to be governor. They're not infected with any prejudices yet. You
should see them cheer when they see me. I'm happy when they see me.''