It is incredible that a serious political debate has not developed as part of the 2004 election campaign. Instead Pedro Rosselló and Aníbal Acevedo Vilá continue to cling to trivial politics. The former pro-statehood governor who left office amid large-scale corruption scandals in his administration felt buoyed by his opponent's pusillanimity and challenged him to debate, only to retract and say that he would not retract. As a show of force, the Resident Commissioner stalwartly stepped forward to accuse the statehood party standard bearer of "chickening out," and sent out a clucking patrol correspondingly disguised to parade near his opponent's headquarters.

Not to be outdone by ideological silliness, the statehood leadership made sure that an equally idiotic stunt reached the commonwealth party headquarters in the form of a long nosed character conveying the profound moral that he who lies suffers the fate of Pinocchio. The ensuing blather among their respective followers lasted for weeks.

These leaders, who glance covetously at the colonial budget, have turned the ridiculous into the absurd. In a war of disguises, it has become embarrassingly difficult to remember who posed as a cowboy on a mare in heat, who dressed up as a short-order cook, who scuttled along the ocean on a jet ski, who posed as a maintenance employee changing bed linen for motel guests, or whose running mate knew less about federal policy-the clean-cut kid with a boyish smile, or the other clean-cut kid with a boyish smile.

Still unsatisfied with their embarrassing romps, last week they began what promises to become real, unadulterated mudslinging. "You're not man enough!" blurted one to the other, only to get pseudo-literary psychobabble as a response: "Your problem is a Juan Tenorio syndrome-uncertainty about your own manhood!"

Meanwhile, back in the seat government, the seated governor proposed a plan to end violence: an election-year government-advertising campaign (of the sort that violates Puerto Rico's Electoral Law but fills the coffers of advertising agencies in advance). Its avant garde message is that people should act non-violently and, at a bargain price of $10 million, it purports to make pacifists out of hardened criminals.

Finally, the people of Puerto Rico, led by peaceful civil disobedience, have forced the US military out of Vieques, bringing the military colony to an end. As a consequence, the Pentagon announced that Roosevelt Roads Naval Base would close. But the commonwealth party candidate, as Resident Commissioner, begged the Pentagon to take pity on his colonial submissiveness. "Hit me but don't leave me," began his heart-wrenching prayer. "If the base must go, send Homeland Security." Or to put it another way, "If you take the soldiers, please send the Inquisition!"

The statehood party, for its part, lost no time in criticizing him for not groveling enough.

All of this could pass as bad April Fools jokes if published in this space a week from today. And in what would surely have been mistaken for another April Fools joke if printed in this space next April 1st, a recent newspaper ad proclaimed: "THE BASE IS CLOSING EVERYTHING MUST GO! Bid Now in Our Puerto Rico Close-Out Sale! U.S. Military Surplus Government Liquidation Roosevelt Roads." (STAR, Feb. 29, page 89.)

The Pentagon's garage sale announcement even provided a web page and a customer service hotline, proving once more that history is oftentimes stranger than fiction. But it is no joke and, so far, no one is doing much to alter the impression that no one is in charge. What is truly worrisome is that, faced with an unprecedented historical challenge, the colonial leadership fails to grasp the serious potential as well as the signals of political deterioration.

Pipelines unexpectedly explode in low-income or in plush neighborhoods, leaving thousands of people without water supply for days. Neighborhoods near El Yunque, the rain forest, suffer from permanent drought, while city streets, country roads, or highways flood if it rains too much in the Tropics; and cars that get caught in the flooding end up prematurely in junkyards, especially after falling into the potholes caused by the rain. Frequent electrical outages-brief or long-force consumer overspending for early replacement of home appliances. The public health system is inefficient and broke. Those who work for a living pay more taxes than those with higher incomes and offshore accounts. And to top this picture of underdevelopment, instead of discussing how to economically integrate into a global system for development and prosperity, the debate of the traditional leadership ignores that the old order is rapidly fading.

Only the Puerto Rican Independence Party appears to show any respect for the electorate. Rubén Berríos, the PIP candidate for governor whose earnestness is increasingly greeted with warmth in his house-to-house visits throughout the island, denounced public discussion by leaders of the other two parties as "personal attacks that contribute nothing to a debate of ideas." This distressing picture of the commonwealth and statehood candidates merely manages, in Berríos' words, "to distract public opinion and evade debating the grave problems that confront our people."

But this is an election year and soon the platforms of the three major parties will be announced. Hopefully then political discussion will focus on real issues. Unless, of course, the flea market of underdevelopment prevails…