A power struggle over who will run this year's Hispanic Festival in the District of Columbia threatens to undermine the annual event that is a focal point for the area's diverse Hispanic community, and has raised the possibility that there may be two competing festivals, some community leaders said this week.
The latest development involves a dispute over the results of the Dec. 17 election for president of the July festival, which in the past has drawn as many 150,000 people.
Two of the losers, Laurel radio station owner Israel Lopez and building contractor Arturo Griffits, contend that the winner, Hispanic newspaper publisher Jose Sueiro, broke an election rule by busing in 34 voters from a local vocational center. Sueiro counters that there was no such rule.
In an unusually bitter election marked by personal insults, Sueiro won by 34 votes over Griffits, who came in second with 168 votes. Lopez came in third with 76 votes and Marco Hechavarria received four votes.
The election brings to a head a long-standing feud between Sueiro and Lopez, who have been vying for leadership of the area's Hispanic community. Lopez has been accused of using his radio station, WILC-AM 90 or Radio Borinquen, to criticize Sueiro and other Hispanic community leaders.
The position of festival president, who acts as the chief organizer of the event for two years, holds symbolic significance for Hispanics who, for the most part, are not U.S. citizens and cannot vote in local, state or national elections.
Building contractor Eduardo Perdomo, the festival's former president and the organizer of this year's election, said this week that he and four members of the festival's board of directors will investigate the allegation filed jointly by Lopez and Griffits.
Until the investigation is completed in the next few weeks, Perdomo said, the election results are "not official." Perdomo said he decided to investigate the allegation because "we think it has some merit."
At a meeting of the four candidates or their representatives several days before the election, they agreed unanimously not to use buses to bring in voters, according to Perdomo.
In the 1985 election, Perdomo bused in about 100 students from the Gordon Adult Center, a D.C.-run vocational center at 35th and T streets NW.
His opponent also brought in several busloads of Chinese voters from nearby suburbs, according to Perdomo, who said there was no election rule against the practice at the time.
Sueiro said that he and his supporters used two buses to bring 34 Hispanics from the Gordon center, which caters mainly to Hispanics, to the Marie Reed Learning Center in Adams-Morgan, where the election was held.
Sueiro, however, disputed that an agreement not to bus in voters was reached at the preelection meeting. He said his representative at the meeting had opposed busing but was overruled by Perdomo and the other candidates.
Griffits could not be reached for comment. Lopez did not return a reporter's phone calls.
Sueiro said he considers himself the duly elected president and already has held several planning meetings.
"I don't recognize the two losers and the past president," he said.
Perdomo said his first approach to resolving the conflict between the candidates will be to try to get them to agree to work together on this year's festival, which will be the 18th since its inception.
If that doesn't work and the board of directors decides Sueiro did break the election rules, then the board could call for new elections or hold a town meeting and let the people decide who they want as president, Perdomo said.
If the bickering continues, then each of the two factions -- Sueiro on one side, and Lopez and Griffits on the other -- might decide to hold their own festival, Perdomo said. They will then compete with each other for D.C. government funds for the festival, which amounted last year to $40,000.
"The problem will then be for the city to decide which festival to go with," Perdomo said.
But Sueiro, who has the backing of a group of former festival presidents, is confident the D.C. government will support him.
"If the city gives us the money, they can shout from now until July but it will make no difference," he said.