ACEVEDO-VILÁ, Aníbal

ACEVEDO-VILÁ, Aníbal
Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office
1962–

Biography

Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá served a single four-year term as Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner, advocating for the island’s commonwealth status and its cultural and political autonomy. “I’m going to Washington to reaffirm that we are Puerto Ricans first. I’m going to Washington to defend the sovereignty of the Puerto Rican people,” Acevedo-Vilá declared shortly after his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000.1

Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá was born on February 13, 1962, in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico, to state senator Salvador Acevedo and Elba Vilá. He earned a degree in political science from the Universidad de Puerto Rico in 1982 and graduated from its law school three years later. After clerking for the supreme court of Puerto Rico, he moved to the mainland United States, where he earned a master's degree from Harvard Law School in 1987. For the next two years, he clerked for the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, returning to Puerto Rico in 1989. He married Luisa Gándara, and the couple had two children, Gabriela and Juan Carlos.

Acevedo-Vilá began his career as an aide for Puerto Rican Governor Hernández Colón of the Partido Popular Democrático (Popular Democratic Party, or PPD), which he called “the longstanding defender of the commonwealth of Puerto Rico.”2 In 1992 at the age of 30, he won election as a Popular Democrat to the Puerto Rican house of representatives, and after only five years in the insular legislature, he was elevated to minority leader and elected president of the PPD—a major vote of confidence.3 As party head, Acevedo-Vilá became a leading critic of the island’s 1998 status referendum—which had support in the U.S. House of Representatives—complaining that it gave those who favored statehood an unfair advantage. On multiple occasions, Acevedo-Vilá asked Congress to scrap referendum bills H.R. 856 and S. 472, and in 1997 he argued heatedly with Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero-Barceló during a House subcommittee hearing on the island’s political status.4 Testifying before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources roughly a year later, Acevedo-Vilá blamed mainland administrators for the island’s nebulous federal relationship. “It is not our fault. It was the United States that invaded Puerto Rico. It was Congress that granted U.S. citizenship back in 1917. It was Congress that granted Commonwealth back in 1952,” he said. “By harmonizing the fact that we are a people, a Nation, with our own identity, history, and culture, with the preservation of the permanent bond of the U.S. citizenship, Commonwealth represents an alternative to the extremes of complete integration and total separation.”5 In December 1998, much to Acevedo-Vilá’s satisfaction, a majority on the island voted in favor of commonwealth status. “This vote,” he declared, “means that we have here people who are proud of their history, proud of their relationship with the United States, proud of their American citizenship, but, above all, proud of their Puerto Ricanness.”6

Not long after the contentious plebiscite debates, Acevedo-Vilá received some unexpected support in the PPD primaries and ran for Resident Commissioner against Romero-Barceló.7 The earlier status vote had set the stage for the 2000 election, crystallizing the major differences between the island’s two main parties. According to the San Juan press, the race was notably “confrontational,” with attacks on character, accusations of dirty money, complaints filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), and threats of disbarment.8 Acevedo-Vilá put everything he had and then some into the campaign; by late October, he was nearly half a million dollars in debt and struggling to match the fundraising pace set by Romero-Barceló.9 In a televised debate days before the election, Acevedo-Vilá chided the incumbent for his aggressive position on statehood, faulted him for the federal government’s military training on the island of Vieques, and accused him of wasting time in Congress.10 Acevedo-Vilá won the support of powerful labor unions and campaigned on promises to strengthen Puerto Rico’s economy, revamp certain environmental regulations, open access to affordable housing, curtail crime, and improve the island’s education system.11 The PPD’s frequent charges of corruption against the sitting Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive) administration weighed heavily on the race. Despite early polls that showed him trailing Romero-Barceló, Acevedo- Vilá eventually pulled ahead with a 49.3 percent plurality, besting the incumbent by about 4 percent.12

Acevedo-Vilá was sworn in as the 18th Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico on January 3, 2001. He caucused with the Democrats and was selected by his first-term peers to serve as their vice president. Like those of his predecessors, Acevedo-Vilá’s committee assignments gave him a voice in economic and territorial issues before Congress. He served on the Agriculture, Resources, and Small Business Committees and also joined the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, where he chaired the Livable Communities Task Force.13

Underlying Acevedo-Vilá’s time in the House was an aggressive campaign to change how Congress understood its relationship with Puerto Rico. Romero-Barceló had cast the federal-insular connection as a struggle for equality, but Acevedo-Vilá sought “a fresh start” in which Puerto Rico would lobby for more control over its affairs, almost as if it were a separate nation. The island’s press called Acevedo-Vilá’s plan “a concept that could run into trouble with federal bureaucrats.” “No longer will Puerto Rico be portrayed on Capitol Hill as a politically put-upon colony whose citizens are deprived of full civil rights within the American system,” wrote the Washington correspondent of the San Juan Star.14

The first test was Acevedo-Vilá’s attempt to convince the navy to cease bombing exercises on the nearby island of Vieques before May 2003, the deadline set by the previous Resident Commissioner and the outgoing William J. (Bill) Clinton administration.15 Acevedo-Vilá had been working on the issue for the better part of two years as PPD president, and in 1999, a year before he ran for the U.S. House, Acevedo-Vilá called on the U.S. Senate to withdraw the navy for good. An accident in which a resident of Vieques was killed by a stray bomb sparked new calls for the Defense Department to cede its portion of the island to Puerto Rico. Moreover, the continual bombings were reportedly sickening Vieques’ residents and destroying the environment.16 “It’s not a national security issue, it’s a health and human-rights issue,” Acevedo-Vilá said.17 Despite the Resident Commissioner’s efforts, the U.S. military upheld the original settlement, ceasing all operations on Vieques in spring 2003 before transferring much of the land to the National Wildlife Refuge System.18

The situation in Vieques cast a long shadow over Acevedo-Vilá’s legislative agenda in the House, which included securing new tax-based incentives for industry seeking to establish roots in Puerto Rico. Many in Washington suspected that Congress would delay any new tax package as long as Puerto Rico pressured the navy to leave Vieques—especially a tax proposal that could easily be construed as “corporate welfare,” according to the island’s press.19 But Acevedo-Vilá framed the incentives as a way to create jobs on an island suffering from high unemployment.20 In a Washington Times editorial, he proposed new tax breaks with safeguards to prevent big companies from exploiting possible loopholes, “thereby maximizing the economic benefits of the legislation.” Since Puerto Rico was a major consumer of U.S. goods, any policy that benefited the island would also benefit the mainland’s economy, Acevedo-Vilá explained, calling his plan “a win-win proposition.”21

Acevedo-Vilá often emphasized Puerto Rico’s unique relationship with the federal government in the hopes of winning more autonomy while seeking equal treatment in relation to the national budget. As the Washington Post pointed out in September 2002, he sought leeway to enact independent trade pacts with nearby Caribbean countries, which the PPD hoped would raise much-needed revenue, even as the PPD “also [was] working to achieve parity with states in federally funded programs, such as nutritional assistance and health care.”22 In the 108th Congress (2003–2005), Acevedo-Vilá worked to improve the services available to veterans on the island, especially at the San Juan VA Medical Center, which had lost many of its resources. He supported amendments to H.R. 1261, the Workforce Reinvestment and Adult Education Act of 2003, and advocated bolstering Medicare on the island, declaring, “U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico pay the same Federal payroll taxes as any other jurisdiction. They deserve equity.”23

Acevedo-Vilá also highlighted Puerto Rico’s environment, introducing a bill in mid-March 2002 to protect a swath of land known as El Yunque, “the only tropical rain forest within the U.S. National Forest System.” Known as the Caribbean National Forest Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 2002 (H.R. 3954)—and based on the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968—the bill provided “maximum protection” for three river systems containing “critical habitat for endangered species and sensitive tropical plant species.” As Acevedo-Vilá noted during its consideration that May, his measure insulated the designated rivers from future commercial development. The bill was reported favorably out of the Resources Committee and passed the House by voice vote on May 7th. The measure was approved by the Senate in the fall and was signed into law by President George W. Bush on December 19, 2002.24

Midway through his four-year term, Acevedo-Vilá announced he would not seek re-election to the House.25 Opting instead to run for governor of Puerto Rico, he won the PPD’s nomination and prevailed in the general election in fall 2004 by a razor-thin margin. After a lengthy legal battle, with multiple appeals and overturned rulings, the federal courts declared Acevedo-Vilá the victor by about 0.2 percent, or approximately 3,500 of the nearly two million votes cast.26 As governor, he continued to oppose calls for statehood and supported efforts in the U.S. Congress proposing a new Puerto Rican constitutional convention. Facing mounting budget deficits, Acevedo-Vilá fought with the Nuevo Progresista-controlled house over a loan to keep the government operational, only to see part of the insular government shut down in May 2006.27

In 2008 Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño of the Partido Nuevo Progresista challenged Acevedo-Vilá in the gubernatorial election. From the start, Acevedo-Vilá’s re-election prospects were weakened by the controversial race four years earlier, the government shutdown, and the resulting financial difficulties. Worse, federal authorities indicted him on multiple counts of fraud, along with a handful of other charges, in what the New York Times described as “an elaborate scheme to pay off more than $500,000 in campaign debts” dating to his time as Resident Commissioner.28 The prosecution denied any underlying motivation, but Acevedo-Vilá remained convinced that the case was politically motivated—a “spectacle designed to harm me.” Acevedo-Vilá lost the gubernatorial election that fall. He was eventually acquitted of all the charges.29

Footnotes

1Roberto Santiago, “Statehood’s Out under P.R. Leader,” 9 November 2000, Daily News: 29.

2Hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, To Consider the Results of the December 1998 Plebiscite on Puerto Rico, 106th Cong., 1st sess. (6 May 1999): 22. For more on Acevedo-Vilá’s political philosophy and his support for commonwealth status, see Congressional Record, Extension of Remarks, 107th Cong., 2nd sess. (24 July 2002): E1338–E1339.

3Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá, “Biography,” http://webarchive.loc.gov/ lcwa0005/20040125060636/http://www.house.gov/acevedo-vila/ xp/eng/biography.htm (accessed 14 February 2011).

4For Acevedo-Vilá’s testimony, see Hearing before the House Committee on Natural Resources, H.R. 856:A Bill to Provide a Process Leading to Full Self-Government for Puerto Rico, 105th Cong., 1st sess. (19 March 1997); Workshop before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, To Provide the Committee with an Overview of the Political Status Discussion in Puerto Rico, 105th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 April 1998); Hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, H.R. 856: A Bill to Provide a Process Leading to Full Self-Government for Puerto Rico, S. 472: To Provide for Referenda in Which the Residents of Puerto Rico May Express Democratically Their Preferences Regarding the Political Status of the Territory, and for Other Purposes, 105th Cong., 2nd sess. (14, 15 July 1998). For Acevedo-Vilá’s testimony after the plebiscite, see Hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, To Consider the Results of the December 1998 Plebiscite on Puerto Rico, 106th Cong., 1st sess. (6 May 1999).

5Workshop before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, To Provide the Committee with an Overview of the Political Status Discussion in Puerto Rico, 105th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 April 1998): 20, 22.

6Mireya Navarro, “Puerto Ricans Vote for the Status Quo,” 14 December 1998, New York Times: A1.

7Frank Ramos, “Election Campaign Is a Roller Coaster Ride,” 29 October 2000, San Juan Star: 28.

8Romero-Barceló even expressed doubts about the patriotism of Acevedo-Vilá and other PPD officials during hearings on H.R. 856 in 1997. Regarding the nature of the election, see Eva Llorens Velez, “Jabs on Vieques, Status Dominate Debate,” 30 October 2000, San Juan Star: 8. For more on the election, see “Campaign Briefs: CRB Asked to Cut Personal Attacks,” 2 October 2000, San Juan Star: 10; Marty Gerard Delfin, “Complaints on Morey, CRB Dismissed,” 5 October 2000, San Juan Star: 8; Maria Soledad Calero, “Acevedo Vilá: I Preferred to Let Complaint Run Its Course,” 6 October 2000, San Juan Star: 5; “Campaign Briefs: Rodríguez: CRB Aided by Proposed Disbarment,” 9 October 2000, San Juan Star: 8; Marty Gerard Delfin, “CRB, Acevedo Vilá File Memorandums Defending Positions,” 11 October 2000, San Juan Star: 12; Leslie Donaldson, “Attack Ads Flourish in Last Weeks of Campaigns,” 15 October 2000, San Juan Star: 5.

9Robert Friedman, “FEC: CRB Tops Acevedo in Stump Funds,” 22 October 2000, San Juan Star: 5.

10Eva Llorens Velez, “Jabs on Vieques, Status Dominate Debate,” 30 October 2000, San Juan Star: 8.

11“Campaign Briefs: Acevedo-Vilá Gets Union Backing,” 25 October 2000, San Juan Star: 15; “Campaign Briefs: Acevedo-Vilá: Less U.S. Control,” 3 October 2000, San Juan Star: 6; “Campaign Briefs: Acevedo Unveils Environment Plan,” 16 October 2000, San Juan Star: 6; “Hopefuls for D.C. Post Debate Vieques, Status,” 20 October 2000, San Juan Star: 12; “Campaign Briefs: Acevedo-Vilá Plan Is Also on Internet,” 13 October 2000, San Juan Star: 6; “Campaign Briefs: Acevedo Unveils Environment Plan,” 16 October 2000, San Juan Star: 6.

12Eva Llorens Velez, “D.C. Post Hopefuls Prepare to Vote,” 7 November 2000, San Juan Star: 6; Maria Soledad Calero and Carlos Antonio Otero, “Acevedo-Vilá Defeats Incumbent CRB for Resident Commissioner,” 8 November 2000, San Juan Star: 7; Rachel Van Dongen, “Puerto Rico’s Man on the Hill Ousted,” 13 November 2000, Roll Call. “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://history.house.gov/institution/election-statistics/electionstatistics/.

13“Local Briefs: Acevedo Chosen for Dem Caucus,” 17 November 2000, San Juan Star: 13; Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá, “Biography,” http:// webarchive.loc.gov/lcwa0005/20040125060636/http://www.house. gov/acevedo-vila/xp/eng/biography.htm (accessed 14 February 2011). For information on his larger agenda, see Jose A. Delgado, “Acevedo-Vilá Will Be Sworn In Today as Resident Commissioner,” 3 January 2001, San Juan Star: 8; “Securing Section 30A Would Be True Test for PDP’s Acevedo-Vilá,” 29 November 2000, San Juan Star: 25.

14Robert Friedman, “Acevedo’s Portrayal of P.R. as a Nation May Confuse Many in D.C.,” 8 January 2001, San Juan Star: 4. See also Robert Friedman, “Acevedo-Vilá Agrees to Cosponsor Medicaid Bill,” 4 January 2001, San Juan Star: 8. For criticism of Acevedo-Vilá’s decision, see Guillermo Moscoso, “Like It or Not, P.R. Not Free from U.S. Congress,” 17 January 2001, San Juan Star: 22; Guillermo Moscoso, “The Time Is Now For P.R. to Make Decision,” 7 February 2000, San Juan Star: 38.

15Robert Friedman, “Acevedo: Vote Shows P.R. Status Stance,” 13 November 2000, San Juan Star: 5; Robert Becker, “PDP Needs Friends in Washington, D.C.,” 13 November 2000, San Juan Star: 25; Karen Carrillo, “Viequens Reach Milestone in Bombing Struggle, Still Remain Vigilant,” 15 March 2001, New York Amsterdam News: 5; Ivan Roman, “Vieques Parties, Calls for Cleanup; On Thursday, the Navy Will Leave Its Bombing Range, But Remnants of Weapons Will Remain,” 30 April 2003, Orlando Sentinel: A1; John McPhaul, “Acevedo-Vilá Blasts Navy,” 16 January 2001, San Juan Star: 6.

16Robert Friedman, “Bush: I ‘Fully Support’ Vieques Vote,” 27 January 2001, San Juan Star: 5; “Editorial: President Starts on Good Terms With P.R.,” 28 January 2001, San Juan Star: 21; Roman, “Vieques Parties, Calls for Cleanup.”

17Hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, To Consider the Results of the December 1998 Plebiscite on Puerto Rico, 106th Cong., 1st sess. (6 May 1999): 22; Larry Luxner, “Calderón Invites Fox to Island; Acevedo Hopes Ties Improve,” 22 February 2001, San Juan Star: 10.

18Congressional Record, House, 108th Cong., 1st sess. (1 May 2003): H3621; Congressional Record, House, Extension of Remarks, 108th Cong., 2nd sess. (24 April 2004): E709–E710; Roman, “Vieques Parties, Calls for Cleanup.”

19Robert Friedman, “Push for Tax Relief May Face Hurdles,” 4 February 2001, San Juan Star: 5; Robert Friedman, “Bush Plan Unlikely to Include P.R. Tax Proposal,” 7 February 2001, San Juan Star: 9.

20Robert Friedman, “Acevedo-Vilá: 936 Phase Out Has Had Disastrous Effects,” 8 February 2001, San Juan Star: 8; John McPhaul, “Acevedo-Vilá Will Prod Congress to Give P.R. a Piece of the Tax-Cut Pie,” 10 February 2001, San Juan Star: 4; Congressional Record, House, 107th Cong., 1st sess. (13 March 2001): H834–H835.

21Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá, “Sunny Economic Returns; Tax Revision Would Revitalize Puerto Rico and America,” 10 October 2002, Washington Times: A21.

22John Marino, “Puerto Rico’s New War on Poverty; Critics Fault $1 Billion Proposal as Paternalistic and No Substitute for Statehood,” 4 September 2002, Washington Post: A3.

23For veterans’ benefits, see Congressional Record, House, 108th Cong., 1st sess. (21 November 2003): H12156. For the workforce bill, see Congressional Record, House, 108th Cong., 1st sess. (8 May 2003): H3787. For Medicare, see Congressional Record, House, 108th Cong., 1st sess. (5 June 2003): H5039.

24Quotations from Congressional Record, House, 107th Cong., 2nd sess. (7 May 2002): H2125–2127. For the committee report, see House Committee on Resources, Caribbean National Forest Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 2002, 107th Cong., 2nd sess. H. Rep. 107-441. For the final law, see Caribbean National Forest Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 2002, P.L. 107-365, 116 Stat. 3027–3029.

25Chris Wright, “Puerto Rico’s Delegate Won’t Run Again,” 4 June 2003, Roll Call; “Puerto Rican Delegate in D.C. Will Run for Seat in Territory,” 10 June 2003, Orlando Sentinel: A11; “Puerto Rico; Resident Commissioner Will Run for Governor,” 21 July 2003, Roll Call.

26On the gubernatorial election, see Abby Goodnough, “Puerto Rico’s Election Has Extra Dose of Drama,” 25 July 2004, New York Times: 12; Nancy San Martin, “Close Governor’s Race Requires a Recount,” 4 November 2004, Miami Herald: A9; Abby Goodnough, “Governor’s Race Keeps Puerto Rico in Suspense,” 17 November 2004, New York Times: 16; “Commonwealth Backer Wins in Puerto Rico,” 24 December 2004, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: A6; Abby Goodnough, “Officials Call Disputed Race for Governor of Puerto Rico,” 29 December 2004, New York Times: A16; Almanac of American Politics, 2008 (Washington, D.C.: National Journal Group Inc., 2007): 1806.

27Matthew Hay Brown, “New Puerto Rico Governor Faces Challenges,” 2 January 2005, Orlando Sentinel: A13; Ray Quintanilla, “Governor, Lawmakers Must End Stalemate,” 17 April 2005, Orlando Sentinel: A11; Pablo Bachelet, “Party Sets in Motion a Push for Statehood,” 7 February 2006, Miami Herald: A10; Anibal Acevedo-Vilá, “When Puerto Ricans Vote, They Choose Commonwealth,” 19 March 2006, Miami Herald: L1; Frances Robles, “Lawyer Hopes to Beat Odds to Win Statehood,” 3 April 2006, Miami Herald: A10; Frances Robles, “Lawmakers Try to Avert Government Shutdown,” 28 April 2006, Miami Herald: A10; Frances Robles, “Thousands Are Idled; No Solution Seen,” 2 May 2006, Miami Herald: A1; Rick Lyman, “Compromise Resolves the Fiscal Crisis in Puerto Rico,” 9 May 2006, New York Times: A18.

28As quoted in Damien Cave and Omaya Sosa-Pascual, “Puerto Rico Ex-Governor Acquitted of Graft,” 21 March 2009, New York Times: A13. See also Kirk Semple, “Puerto Rico’s Political Melodrama Plays On, with Its Governor in the Lead Role,” 24 February 2008, New York Times: A24; Carrie Johnson and Matthew Mosk, “Puerto Rico’s Governor Is Charged with Corruption,” 28 March 2008, Washington Post: A1; Frances Robles, “Puerto Rico’s Governor Is Indicted on New Charges,” 20 August 2008, Miami Herald: A13; Jeannette Rivera-Lyles, “Puerto Rico’s Governor: Latest Charges Are Bogus, Too,” 21 August 2008, Orlando Sentinel: D3; Susan Anasagasti Akus and Frances Robles, “Indicted Governor Faces Tough Challenge,” 3 November 2008, Miami Herald: A16.

29As quoted in William Bender, “Gladwyne Fundraiser Charged in Campaign-Contribution Scam,” 28 March 2008, Philadelphia Daily News: 13. See also Jeannette Rivera-Lyles, “Puerto Rican Governor Vows He’ll Stay Despite 19 Fundraising Charges,” 28 March 2008, Orlando Sentinel: A2; Devlin Barrett, “Justice Dept. under Scrutiny after Stevens’ Trial,” 5 April 2009, Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk): A4; Cave and Sosa-Pascual, “Puerto Rico Ex-Governor Is Acquitted of Graft.”

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

[ Top ]

Bibliography / Further Reading

Acevedo-Vilá, Aníbal. En honor a la verdad. San Juan, Puerto Rico: Coridillera, 2000.

"Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá" in Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-2012. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of the Historian and the Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2013.

[ Top ]

Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Agriculture
  • House Committee - Resources
  • House Committee - Small Business
[ Top ]