Calderón, Sila Marí

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Sila María Calderón: 1942: Governor of Puerto Rico

As the former mayor of San Juan, and as Puerto Rico's first woman governor, Sila María Calderón has set goals to ally Puerto Rico with other Latin American nations and to establish national autonomy. To reduce poverty among 3.8 million mostly Hispanic citizens, she sought tax breaks for investors and fuller employment throughout the country. A fierce opponent of U.S. naval ordnance training on Vieques Island, she enlarged protests by enlisting political leaders from districts with large Latino constituencies.

Born in San Juan on September 23, 1942, Calderón enjoyed the comfort and affluence provided by her father, César A. Calderón, a hotelier and ice cream manufacturer. An honor student educated in island history at Sacred Heart Academy in Santurce, she traveled Europe with her father and mother, homemaker Sila Serra Calderón. Calderón studied government at Manhattanville College in New York City, and public administration at the University of Puerto Rico.

In 1973 Calderón became the executive assistant to her former labor relations professor, Luis Strong Silva, when he was appointed Puerto Rico's secretary of labor. She then served as special assistant for economic development to Governor Rafael Hernández Colón. In 1985 she was appointed chief of staff in the governor's officethe first woman in Puerto Rico to hold that position. Over the next few years she held several different offices, including secretary of state and lieutenant governor. In 1989 she entered the private sector to become president of Commonwealth Investment Company and also serve as a vice president at Citibank. But in the early 1990s she returned to the political arena to begin a career in progressive politics.

Elected Mayor of San Juan

In 1995 Calderón ran for mayor of San Juan as a Popular Democrat against the powerful New Progressive party. Unlike her predecessors, she spoke in straightforward terms. Against Pedro Rosselló's call for island statehood, she favored commonwealth status. To Caribbean Business, she explained: "I appreciate and treasure my U.S. citizenship. I want my children and their children to always have it." In November of 1996 she won the election, obtaining 51 percent of the vote.

After two years Calderón began campaigning for governor. Boosting her appeal with voters were her plans to upgrade the water system, provide more housing, and improve workers' lives. On September 11, 2000, she delivered a Labor Day speech honoring Puerto Ricans and presenting her plans for a social contract promising greater sensitivity to workers' needs. She opposed adversity between government and labor and commended productivity and company competition. She vowed to extend the collaborative spirit in a program she called the Puerto Rican Project for Century 21.

At a Glance . . .

Born Sila Maria Calderón on September 23, 1942, in San Juan, Puerto Rico; daughter of César A. (a hotelier and ice cream manufacturer) and Sila Serra Calderón; married Adolfo Krans, an insurance broker (divorced, 2001); children: one son and two daughters. Education: Manhattanville College, 1964; University of Puerto Rico, 1972. Religion: Roman Catholic. Politics: Popular Democrat.

Career: Executive assistant to the secretary of labor, 1973; secretary of state, 1985; mayor of San Juan, 1996; governor of Puerto Rico, 2000.

Awards: Chamber of Commerce honoraria, 1985, 1987; Woman of the Year, Product Association of Puerto Rico, 1986; Order of Isabel, Catholic Church, 1987; Leader of the Year, American Public Work Association, 1988; honorary doctorate, Manhattanville College, 1989; distinguished graduate, University of Puerto Rico, 1989; dedicatee, New York City's Puerto Rican Day, 2001.

Address: Office Governor's Office, La Fortaleza, San Juan, PR 00901.

Calderón attacked the poverty and isolation affecting more than forty percent of Puerto Ricans. In a speech on October 2, 2000, she denounced these ills as "unacceptable for any civilized society." After visiting 426 communities, she resolved to make available the agencies of health, housing, financial aid, and employment, and pledged a minimum of $200 million for socioeconomic development. She used as a model the 1992 empowerment project she directed in Península de Cantera that rehabilitated communities by promoting citizen initiative. To fight crime, she planned to appoint a drug czar and to enhance municipal policing. Her plans also called for health reform, electronic libraries, a longer school year, and an office of women's issues.

Fought Government Corruption as Governor

Elected governor with 48.6 percent of the vote, Calderón defeated Carlos Pesquera and took office on January 2, 2001. She and her second husband, insurance broker Adolfo Krans, moved with their family into La Fortaleza, the governor's residence. As she had promised, she demanded a free press and halted bureaucratic bribery and extortion. A year later she arrested the former governor's personal aide, Maria de Los Angeles Rivera, and former Education Secretary Victor Fajardo. To preserve campaign honesty, she voluntarily opened the party's accounts to public scrutiny.

Calderón met with President George W. Bush to plot a business strategy that relied less on federal aid. She stated in an interview conducted by the Washington Times, "We want our people to have the dignity of holding a job. We do not want an Island dependent on welfare." To achieve fiscal autonomy, she lowered operating costs, expedited business permits, and acquired economic aid to boost employment. She anticipated completion of El Puerto de las Americas, the island's transshipment cargo consolidator, as a vital source of employment in the country.

At her program's core lay the need to compete with Ireland, Korea, and Singapore, which paid lower wages and offered investment incentives to business. Calderón proposed tax breaks to lure companies who were willing to become foreign-controlled corporations. Specifically, she called for extending the 1998 Tax Incentives Act, offering a 200 percent deduction for worker training and a tax rebate on newly purchased equipment, and lowering the capital gains tax for investors. She welcomed Eli Lilly & Company, which built a $250 million biotechnology plant to employ 300 people in the manufacture of Humalog, the first synthetic insulin.

Faced Off Against United States

Calderón's most volatile political endeavor was her battle to force the U.S. Navy to surrender use of the island of Vieques, the Atlantic Fleet's only live-fire training range. In April of 1999, when a bomber accidentally killed civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez, islanders challenged a post-World War II deal with the Navy to allow ordnance testing. They cited as reasons for eviction the endangerment of life and health and the suppression of fishing and tourism. Calderón, in her inaugural address, had accused the United States of exploitation, stating, according to Insight in the News : "Sixty years of a menace to the health and security of our compatriots is unacceptable for any civilized and peaceful society."

In February of 2001 environmental lobbyists bolstered her protest with claims that bombing drills poisoned the atmosphere. Unlike previous governors, Calderón ordered the U.S. Navy off Vieques, emphasizing what she felt were six decades of military imposition on islanders. She reasoned that detonation of live ammunition posed security risks and sapped residents' health by disrupting the peace and spreading contamination from cadmium, copper, lead, and magnesium.

Navy Secretary Robert Pirie informed Calderón that the military would resume inert bombing at Vieques after an agreed 90-day hiatus. To suppress more bombing, she imposed anti-noise-pollution laws, which a U.S. district court overturned. Locally, she drew criticism for the fiscal waste of paying ad agencies over $1 million to design campaigns supporting her anti-ordnance crusade. However, she found support from New York's Governor George Pataki, a Republican who courted the Latino vote by backing protesters.

U.S. Reneged on Promise to Withdraw

Calderón obtained President Bush's commitment to withdraw the Navy on May 1, 2003. She scheduled a referendum on Vieques to allow voters to choose between forcing the Navy to abide by the date or allowing the military to conduct ordnance exercises in return for $50 million in economic aid. She told the Washington Times she was fighting for people "whose health, security, and environment have been endangered for 60 years and who haven't had a voice to speak for them because they are very poor." Although 80 percent of Vieques residents voted for the Navy's withdrawal, the results of the referendum were non-binding. After terrorists launched the Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001, President Bush retracted his earlier promise and insisted that the military continue training missions over Vieques to protect national security. A month later Calderón allied with protesters to force Bush to set a withdrawal date.

After Calderón proposed a second referendum for November 6th, a month before the balloting, Superior Court Judge Sonia Velez Colon ruled the referendum unconstitutional. Colon also declared illegal the use of public funds for a non-binding vote. Calderón vowed to appeal the ruling while pressuring Congress to force the Navy off Vieques by May of 2003. Backing the governor was Puerto Rican Justice Secretary Anna-belle Rodriguez, who sought settlement of the issue by the Puerto Rican Supreme Court.

While the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services studied charges of illness on Vieques, Calderón publicized documents from the Puerto Rican health department reporting that islanders experienced an elevated risk of cancer, and that shelling noise caused a vibroacoustic disease that thickened the carotid artery. An April of 2001 cardiological study at Johns Hopkins had disputed Calderón's claim that bombing compromised health, and the Centers for Disease Control disclosed that Vieques residents showed a normal cancer incidence. Calderón's reply to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated that he was dismissing the Puerto Rican research out of hand, and prejudging health surveys before they were tabulated and reviewed by unbiased agencies.

Worked to Improve Puerto Rico

Calderón continued to work toward a better Puerto Rico. On April 11, 2002, she spoke at Rutgers University about her plans to register Puerto Rican voters in New Jersey to empower mainland Latinos. When she addressed a full house at Princeton University on the subject of commonwealth history, she declared, according to the Daily Princetonian : "The rules of commonwealth are both ideological and imminently practical. [allowing] us to affirm our own identity while cherishing our citizenship." She affirmed that a special relationship with the United States had elevated housing, education, life span, and quality of life, but she balanced her praise with a warning that the United States had broken promises to Puerto Rico. Among her complaints with commonwealth status were detrimental tax laws and lax immigration rules. The crux of her speech returned to the exploitation of Vieques, which she characterized as "a violation of human rights."

As the Vieques question clouded island politics, Calderón held out hope to Puerto Ricans for a better life. On March 16, 2002, she announced plans to spend $102 million on water and sewer plants and an aqueduct extension in western Puerto Rico. A week later she pledged $165.5 million in urban renewal for 18 municipalities, and the generation of 2,591 jobs.



Caribbean Business, December 3, 1998.

Daily Princetonian, April 12, 2002.

Hispanic, January-February 1989, pp. 10-13; January-February 2001.

Insight on the News, February 26, 2001, p. 47.

Institutional Investor, March 2002.

NACLA Report on the Americas, January 2001, p. 1.

Navy News & Undersea Technology, April 16, 2001, p. 1.

New York Times, November 12, 2000, p. 26; January 6, 2001, p. A7; January 14, 2001, p. 16; November 28, 2001, p. D3; January 3, 2002, p. A16; February 21, 2002, p. A23.

Washington Post, January 20, 2001, p. A2; June 28, 2001, p. A31; July 29, 2001, p. A07; October 11, 2001, p. A31; October 18, 2001, p. A32.


Biography Resource Center Online, Gale Group, 2002


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