Last month, I wrote about our month-long sojourn in Puerto Rico and how much of the island, though not the resort districts, is alive with the sound of music. Its excruciatingly loud pop music whose metronomic thumping bass notes rattle fillings and forestall thought.
A friend who has spent the past decade immersed in the culture of Central America and the Caribbean explained it this way. Preventing thought is the point of that music because what people would think about is how hopeless their situation is. There seemed, in our travels around the island, to be truth to that.
What follows are impressions and observations made after dozens of conversations, but nothing born of deep knowledge or long experience.
We drove around much of the island. Puerto Rico is, in land area, half the size of New Hampshire, but its landscape is even more varied. Flat farmlands south of San Juan, mountain jungles in the east, dry rolling desert-like terrain and cattle ranches in the south, California-like coastline and surfer beaches on the west.
We traveled west from San Juan through Arecibo, home to the giant radio telescope made famous in the movies GoldenEye (James Bond) and Contact (Jodie Foster) and on to Rincon, with its surf shops and hip bars.
We went east to El Yunque National Forest, swam from Luqillos famous beaches, kayaked in a bioluminescent bay in the dark in Fajardo, ate fresh-caught grilled snapper in El Makito, a bayside restaurant in Naguabo, where diving pelicans provided the entertainment, stayed beachside in Yabucoa, and made it as far as the quake-rattled city of Ponce in the south before cutting back through Caguas in the middle of the island to our $35-a-night home base.
Every person we spoke to, young and old, was revolted by President Trump, his attack on immigrants, and his disdain for their homeland.
But every person, young or old, said Trump was right not to send billions more in aid to Puerto Rico unless it was distributed by mainland agencies, not by Puerto Ricos politicians and public officials. All, or almost all, we were told, are hopelessly corrupt. The aid money would never reach those who needed it most.
Last week the Associated Press reported that most of the $290 million in U.S. aid meant to feed Puerto Rican schoolchildren during the pandemic has gone unspent for more than a month for want of a plan by the island government to distribute it. Hunger is widespread.
The island, like other U.S. territories, is a victim of outdated federal policies seemingly designed to guarantee continued second-class colonial status.
The 1920 Jones Act requires that goods sent to Puerto Rico be conveyed on U.S.-owned, flagged and operated ships, which is one of the reasons why groceries cost roughly 50% more than in mainland stores.
Puerto Ricos residents, though American citizens, cant vote. Their sole representative in Congress is relegated to observer status. The islands standard of living increased dramatically after a 1976 federal tax break made it profitable for manufacturers, especially pharmaceutical companies, to build plants on the island. In 1996 the Clinton administration phased out the tax incentives. Many factories closed and Puerto Rico has been in recession ever since.
The damage from ongoing recession and endemic corruption appears to be even greater than that of earthquakes and hurricanes. Seaside properties have tumbled into ruin. Trees grow out of centuries-old buildings in Arecibo and Ponce, places that would be on the historic register of most communities.
Citizens hope for electoral rescue by native Puerto Ricans like actor Benicio del Toro or children of the islands long diaspora, among them actor Jimmy Smits, singer Jennifer Lopez and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.
Protests, mostly by the young last summer, led to the ouster of the islands governor and a host of other elected officials, but no one we spoke to had faith in the current government or the possibility of change.
The poverty rate is roughly 45%. The young, educated and enterprising have been leaving the island in droves for want of jobs. The islands population, which peaked at just shy of 3.8 million, has fallen to 3.1 million. Whole blocks of commercial and office buildings just outside San Juans old city are empty and marred by graffiti.
About one-third of the island economy, to escape taxation, is estimated to be off the books. Big-box national chains like Walmart killed off downtown stores and picturesque shops. Fast-food chain restaurants are everywhere.
The Puerto Ricans we met were outgoing and friendly. The islands culture, starting with the indigenous Taino indians enslaved and killed by Christopher Columbus and those who came after him, has always been one of peace. The macho swagger of men and boys was nowhere to be seen. But the hopelessness, fatalism and belief that their second-class status would never change were disheartening.
The United States, in the 21st century, still treats Puerto Rico as a colony undeserving of full democracy. Because they are less, we are lessened. Statehood is the only potential solution to the islands many problems.
(Ralph Jimenez of Concord is a member of the Monitors editorial board.)
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