Puerto Rico and Colonialism

Ay si estuviera en mis manos

borrar mis triunfos mayores

y a mi bohío de Collores

volver… 

Luis Lloréns Torres

I start with a beautiful poem from Luis Lloréns Torres, a poem that every child who grows up in this country learns to love. Loosely translated: “If it were within my power to erase my greatest achievements, and I could return to my hut in Collores (A local valley).”

You have heard a lot about my country of late. We are in the midst of an overwhelming financial crisis that threatens to destroy the essence and fabric of every family in this island. You have also heard that profligate politicians have wasted millions of dollars over the years; that corruption and loose financial accounting is to blame for this disaster. A major hurricane and two lesser ones devastated the local infrastructure. There were earthquakes, and a severe drought that triggered water rationing. Our misery has no bounds.

There is some truth to the stealing and greed explanation. More than a sliver. But let’s look at the facts. I received the most exquisite education available to anybody, anywhere, from birth until I finished college, on the government’s dime. I have met five Nobel Prize winners. I have been within arm’s length of the most famous musicians of my time. I was at every point encouraged, cuddled, and loved by so many teachers that I would fill a page if I could remember all of them. On the government’s dime.

There is not one; there are several free schools of music in the island. Any child that shows talent is directed to them. They go to school a half day; learn music the other half. Hundreds of well-trained musicians have graduated from these temples of learning. On the government’s dime.

As a matter of course the arts are encouraged and respected. If you tell your best friend that your child wants to be an artist in the States you’ll probably get an expression of sympathy. In Puerto Rico,  you are admired and congratulated. We have the most beautiful performing Arts Center I have ever seen; four venues that accommodate anything from pop concerts to classical music to experimental theater and ballet. A local high school nurtures our young sculptors and painters. If you could go to their yearly exhibition you would want to buy half of what you see. All of this attained on the government’s dime.

Our conservation trust ranks first by any measure. With meager resources we have managed to save more than a dozen valuable sites from destruction. The government helps to fund it, but the Trust Board is independent. The goal is to save more than 12% of the land from developers. This goal will be reached. You do not hear much resentment against this Green movement. Everyone buys into it. Visit fideicomiso.org to get an idea.

We have managed to give medical coverage to almost everyone in Puerto Rico. Not a perfect system, but compare to the large percentage of USA citizens that are left to rot when they have no insurance. We would be doing much, much better if Medicare and Medicaid funds that belong to us were being properly dispensed by the US Government, but more on that later. People feel it is our duty to help the uninsured. Yes; on the government’s dime.

We have great highways; indescribably beautiful and well-tended beaches; excellent parks; all available at free or reduced rates to people with limited means. On the government’s dime.

So we have accomplished a lot: the government for the most part has complied with its covenant with the people. There were budget overruns, but I find it laughable that legislators in the USA who have sunk their country trillions of dollars in debt are preaching fiscal prudence to Puerto Rico. The emperor has no clothes on.

Speaking of emperor… In 1897 Puerto Rico became a province of Spain.  After hundreds of years of colonial rule we became full citizens. We had representation in the Spanish parliament. We had an identity.

In 1898 the USA used a flimsy and probably fabricated excuse to start a war with Spain. It was no match. Spain surrendered after a few months. Puerto Rico, because of its strategic location, was wrested from Spanish hands.  Overnight we became a colony once again. We were not given USA citizenship until 1917. For almost twenty years we were US “nationals” and Puerto Rican citizens. We were in limbo.

If you read some of the stuff people in power wrote about us and the Filipinos… They were called “mongrels” undeserving of any rights. We were classified as uneducated and undeserving of any TLC. Huge swaths of land were taken over by large agricultural firms. People were paid below poverty wages, only during growing season. Workers did not receive cash: they were given vouchers to buy groceries at the company store, which of course was more expensive than the regular businesses. No effort was made to train or educate these clearly inferior people in other professions.

When the cost of labor to produce sugar cane increased, all of the American agricultural businesses abandoned the island. Overwhelming poverty ensued. Once WW II ended and the United Nations charter was adopted, the US was forced to change its relationship to Puerto Rico so that the UN would not consider us a colony.

In 1952 we were given a limited form of self-government. We could elect our own governor and legislature; we could collect our own taxes. We were entitled to one spokesperson in the US House of Representatives, without voting rights. We could not vote for president or Congress. We could not negotiate any commercial treaties with any country without Congress’ permission. Any goods that flowed between Puerto Rico and the US had to be shipped on American vessels manned by American crews. No other state has to abide by this edict. The cost of living in the island soared.

During the Vietnam War, our young men were drafted into the military. They were sent away to get killed or crippled. Puerto Ricans had no way to say that maybe we did not want to be a part of this. Anyone who refused to serve under this dictatorial system was prosecuted and threatened with jail time.

The US military at one point held 17% of Puerto Rican land, obtained through expropriation. This was the largest percentage of land “owned” by the military on any state. The islands of Vieques and Culebra were used to simulate amphibious attacks. Live ammunition was used, less than a mile from where civilians lived. The Air Force used the beaches to practice bombing runs. Again, with live explosives. Unexploded ordinance remains in those beaches. The military has made no effort to collect it.

This is what I mean by Emperor. The US has, most of the time, acted as if there was a concerted effort to keep our country weak and dependent on it. The utmost example is the distribution of Medicare and Medicaid funds. Puerto Ricans pay Medicare taxes at the same rate as everyone else, but local doctors and hospitals only receive 60% of what Florida gets. The Medicaid rate is even lower. For a doctor who practices in Puerto Rico, it becomes very appealing to pack your bags and leave for the US. Hundreds have done so, emasculating our middle class (read tax base) and further eroding our ability to pay what we owe.

Why don’t we protest? Did you forget? We have no vote! Who will Medicare listen to? The unrepresented “foreigners” or the congressman from Florida who has a seat on the Medicare committee? You got it right.

I could go on for dozens of pages detailing the abuses and oversights perpetuated on our people.

We want to pay our debts, but we cannot dance with our feet tied together.

So here it is in blunt language: What you hear about corruption and irresponsible politicians is wagging the dog. A small percentage of the problem that can and will be corrected. But the solution is not to take what little self-determination we have away. We need to lower the interest in our bonds; we need a five-year break on when we start to pay them back. We need to be represented in Congress just like any other US citizen. We must be allowed to arrange for the cheapest transport available so that our exports will be competitively priced. We cannot be treated as second-class while the US calls itself a beacon of freedom and equal representation.

Above all we need respect.  We are US citizens; we cannot and should not be treated as unimportant street dancers.

We will not stand for it.

Leave a Reply

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. BELEN GUERRERO CALDERON

    Querido Paco:
    Resulta refrescante y esperanzador que despues de tantos años en la diáspora puedas expresar lo que expresas en tu reflexión sobre Puerto Rico. Eres, precisamente, el ejemplo vivo de que somos una nación y no un reguerete de ciudadanos estadounidenses que vivimos en una ínsula caribeña. Me siento orgullosa de ti. Vente pa’ca, para reunirnos a recitar a Llorens, Julia,
    Corretjer, José de Diego, Gautier Benítez, a nuestra Lolita de UHS y a tantos otros y otras poetas que como tu, nos engrandecen.

    Abrazote. Belén

    1. Como siempre admiro y hasta “worship” tu opinión. Tengo un apartamento espectacular en el centro de St. Louis; siete nietos que me ven semanal (por lo menos) y que sufrirían mucho si se les va el abuelo. Pero uno nunca sabe; a veces hay que hacer lo que hay que hacer. Estoy pensando en comenzar un grupo que se llame “Hacer Patria” para discutir nuestros problemas y sus soluciones. Como progresen mis gestiones te aviso si te interesa participar.

      Paco

  2. rtiepelman

    I believe the words you were looking for are:
    These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but “to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER,” and if being bound in that manner is not slavery, then there is not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.

    Tom Paine. Around the time of the Boston Tea Party.

    But Hey!
    As part of the United States you also have (or don’t have,) this right:

    When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for the people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness….

    The easiest way to maintain power is to repress everybody else’s.
    When the best words have already been spoken, the wise will turn around.

  3. Kathy and Neil

    Amen, and God bless you and all of the people of your island.

      1. Betty Townsend

        I’m so sorry that your home land has been abused. The government of my country has become more and more corrupt. I spell politician “corrupt” The few that go to Washington with all the good intentions are quickly taken aside and shown just where their bread is butter. I vote but sometimes it is so very hard to chose a candidate.