By Andrew Cockburn
The rum bottle in front of him almost empty, Jacobo Morales is approaching the end of a rambling stage monologue on what it means to be Puerto Rican. Earlier he had toasted “the great American nation, of which I’m proud to be a citizen.” But with this most recent toast his mood has turned militantly nationalistic: “What I am is Ameri . . . Puerto Rican!” And then another turnabout. “Puerto Rican and Ameri. . . . What I am is a realist, because one thing is what I feel, another is what’s convenient. What I feel is Puerto Rican first and Puerto Rican always—but what about the welfare checks?” finally, polishing off the last of the bottle, Morales makes up his mind, shouting: “Viva Puerto Rico libre!—Long live free Puerto Rico!”
In reality, Jacobo Morales is not a boozy barroom philosopher, but Puerto Rico’s leading film director as well as a member of Los Rayos Gamma, the Gamma Rays—a group of old friends who have turned themselves into a political satire group. “The last line always brings the house down,” he says happily. “I am speaking as Juan del Pueblo [the local equivalent of Joe Sixpack] but even a middle-class audience in San Juan will cheer the idea of independence. Inside, all Puerto Ricans feel very nationalistic about their island, even if they don’t vote that way.”
“That’s why we close the bars on election day,” a government official in the capital of San Juan noted cynically as we discussed Morales’s performance. “Otherwise the whole country would vote for independence.” As it is, with sobriety enforced, Puerto Rico is, and has been since the birth of its constitution in 1952, a commonwealth, meaning, in effect, it is a semicolony of the United States.
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, although island residents do not vote for President or pay federal income taxes; they have only nonvoting representation in Congress. The U.S. government takes care of defense and foreign affairs and foots the bill for welfare (for which almost 60 percent of Puerto Ricans qualify). Otherwise, Puerto Rico exercises self-government in local affairs.
Despite 50 years of the status quo, the electorate’s passionate interest in debating the issue of the island’s relationship to the United States has continued undiminished. Turnout on election days remains steady at around 85 percent (although much of the fervor may come from the fact that thousands of government jobs, which account for one-third of the island’s total workforce, can be at stake when one party replaces another). Currently the party favoring the present commonwealth status has a growing margin over the party demanding Puerto Rico’s admission as the 51st state. Nearly 5 percent champion full independence from the United States.
The debate invades conversations in the most unlikely places, as I discovered in talking with Luis, a heroin addict who assured me earnestly that the high price of his fix compared to what he would pay in New York was “another example of the unfair trade relations between Puerto Rico and the U.S.”
I gained this unusual perspective on U.S.–Puerto Rican relations at an addicts’ shooting gallery in La Perla, a self-contained com-munity perched on a steep slope between the shoreline and the massive 17th-century fortifications of Old San Juan. This is a place where police seldom venture and that outsiders are warned to avoid. Luis pointed to the jagged rocks below, where unfortunates who break the internal laws of the community, such as robbing a neighbor, have ended up. “We are,” he said with a note of pride in his voice, “an island within an island.”
There are many cultural islands within Puerto Rico. Though its four million or so inhabitants are crammed into a space only a hundred miles (one hundred-sixty kilometers) long by 35 miles (56 kilometers) wide, the society exhibits an impressive degree of diversity. They even call the same thing by different names: In San Juan, sprawled along the island’s northeast coast, a nickel is a vellón. In the mountains that run east-west through the center of the island, it is a ficha. Loíza, a town east of San Juan and populated largely by the descendants of African slaves, is the hub of the distinctive bomba music and dance, but there are no fewer than 13 variations of bomba on the island.
Local pride is fierce. A few years ago the people of Cabo Rojo, a small western town, got a law passed that allows them to claim Cabo Rojo as their legal birthplace even if they are born in the hospital in nearby Mayagüez. Inhabitants of the southern coastal city of Ponce, which had its greatest days of prosperity in the 19th century, look down on vulgar San Juan and are considered snooty by everyone else.
Despite these regional loyalties and rivalries, Puerto Ricans do not make jokes about each other, but about outsiders. “All the jokes used to be about Cubans,” explains attorney Héctor González Pereira, “about how pushy they were and about how much wealth they all claimed to have left behind when they fled Castro. Now people tell jokes about Dominicans,” most of whom arrive as boat people across the Mona Passage from Santo Domingo and provide the menial unskilled workforce, “about how dumb they are, like the Polish jokes you used to have in the States.”
San Juan itself is an ever expanding island, its suburbs steadily creeping up the slopes of the inland mountains. And at the heart of the metropolis Old San Juan is yet another enclave, blocks of graceful row houses along streets paved with cobblestones that arrived as ballast in galleons at the beginning of the 16th century. This antique gem is carefully preserved as a beguiling relic of the 400 years when the island served as an outpost to guard Spain’s American empire.
It was during the centuries of Spanish control that Puerto Ricans coalesced as a people—an intermingling of the original inhabitants, the Taíno Indians (long gone, although mitochondrial DNA tests recently revealed that more than 60 percent of Puerto Ricans alive today have a Taíno ancestor), with the descendants of the Spanish settlers and their African slaves. Early in the 19th century the Spanish government, alarmed by nationalist rebellions among colonial Spaniards elsewhere, advertised for non-Spanish white Catholic settlers, and thus added numbers of Irish and Corsicans to the mix.
“The Corsicans were smugglers,” one of their descendants, journalist Juan Manuel García-Passalacqua, notes proudly, “which in any case is an old Puerto Rican tradition.” Other traditional economic mainstays included sugar, worked by slaves on the plantations in the coastal lowlands, and coffee, grown in the central mountain ranges that shelter the arid south from the trade winds that keep the north humid and green.
As the population grew, so did its quest to gain freedom from Spain. By the end of the 19th century Puerto Ricans had finally wrested a mea-sure of political autonomy from their rulers in Madrid—just in time for the Spanish-American War in 1898. The U.S. not only took possession of the island, along with its largest plantations and sugar mills, as the spoils of war, it also embarked on a program to Americanize the locals.
“The great mass of Puerto Ricans are as yet passive and plastic,” declared an official of the newly installed U.S. military government, which was replaced by a civil government created by the U.S. Congress in 1900. “Their ideals are in our hands to create and mold.” Puerto Ricans were portrayed in U.S. newspaper cartoons at the time as primitive savages dressed in loincloths. All schools were swiftly provided with reading material in English, U.S. history books, and American flags. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico for half a century remained an agricultural backwater of impoverished peasant farmers.
Matters began to change in 1950 with the launch of Operation Bootstrap, an economic program that lured U.S. corporations to the island with the promise of cheap labor and attractive tax breaks. Farmers abandoned their small holdings on the slopes of the central mountains to work in new manufacturing plants, textile factories, and fish canneries springing up around San Juan and elsewhere. Others emigrated in vast numbers to New York, forming yet another Puerto Rican island offshore. Within a generation Operation Bootstrap raised Puerto Rico’s health, education, and income levels far beyond what the island had previously known. As the largesse of the 1960s Great Society programs brought prosperity to the island, it appeared that Puerto Rico might indeed be molded into a little slice of the United States, albeit with a Latin veneer.
With this rush to modernity came a corresponding tendency to jettison symbols of the island’s heritage. Fifty years ago Old San Juan nearly fell victim to local developers intent on obliterating its blue cobblestone streets and pastel row houses.
“They wanted to tear the city down and create what they promised would be a mini-New York,” recalls Ricardo Alegría, founder of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, which played a leading role in saving the old city. “There were similar plans for Ponce,” another gem of colonial architecture. “That was going to be a mini-Chicago.”
Puerto Ricans appear to be withstanding all attempts at molding them into a slice of the U.S. They have resisted attempts to turn them into English-speakers; in Hawaii, there are even families whose ancestors left Puerto Rico in the 1890s that are still obdurately speaking Spanish and eating rice and beans. Nowadays Puerto Rico is spearheading the Latin invasion of American popular music, thanks to the international success of stars like Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, and the group Plena Libre.
In sporting events and beauty pageants—the only international venues in which Puerto Rico participates as an independent nation—success takes on extraordinary importance. When, in May 2001, Denise Quiñones became the fourth Puerto Rican to win the Miss Universe title, the whole island erupted in a frenzy of nationalist exhilaration. Cheering crowds waving the Puerto Rican flag blocked the streets of San Juan for hours. The next day, when local boxer Felix “Tito” Trinidad won a world middleweight boxing championship, celebrations erupted all over again. At a Trinidad victory rally in 2000, fans forced organizers to remove the U.S. flag from the stage. “This is our victory,” they shouted.
In the past, flaunting the Puerto Rican flag could be dangerous—”my wife was pulled over in the 1950s for displaying a flag sticker on her car,” remembers journalist García-Passalacqua—but it is something Puerto Ricans now do with abandon. Visiting the island in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, when the entire U.S. seemed festooned with the Stars and Stripes, I found it strange to see Old Glory relegated almost solely to government buildings while the single star of the Puerto Rican flag sprouted from offices, cars, and homes everywhere. Now even the Statehood Party features the Puerto Rican flag in its TV ads.
Two flags fly in front of a modest wooden chapel near an old Spanish fort in San Juan—one the Stars and Stripes, the other the flag of Puerto Rico. The chapel is a reproduction of one built on Vieques, an island 21 miles (34 kilometers) long and 4 (6 km) wide off the east coast of Puerto Rico. The protesters who built the original chapel were demonstrating against the U.S. Navy, which, in 1941, expropriated two-thirds of Vieques for a base and bombing range.
The Vieques chapel was torn down by the Navy, so the protesters erected its twin in the capital, complete with a defiantly large Puerto Rican flag. Militant supporters of statehood tore that flag down and replaced it with the Stars and Stripes. Now, in a compromise resolution to the standoff, the two pennants flutter side by side in uneasy proximity.
The national uproar over the use of Vieques for U.S. military target practice, however, transcends disagreements about flags—and continues despite a promise by the U.S. to vacate the Navy installation by May of this year.
For years, Vieques residents, known as Viequenses, protested the bombardment of their island without effect. Then, in April 1999, a U.S. Marine Corps FA-18 fighter missed its target by a mile and dropped two 500-pound (227-kilogram) bombs close to the range observation post, killing a local civilian security guard named David Sanes.
Outrage swept Puerto Rico. By February 2000, a march in San Juan drew 150,000 people. In November 2000 Sila Calderón was elected governor of Puerto Rico after vowing to stop the Navy bombing. The island’s leading musicians collaborated on a joint CD devoted to the cause of Vieques. Dozens of Puerto Rican veterans returned their medals in a box to the White House. “I spent a year in a combat zone,” wrote Luis Ramos, now the Puerto Rican government’s veterans liaison, in a letter to the White House. “It changed my life forever. The children of Vieques have been in a combat zone since they were born. You must put an end to that.”
The ferment generated a civil disobedience movement among Puerto Ricans of all political persuasions. Those who made pilgrimages to Vieques to be arrested—and sentenced to increasingly harsh prison terms—included many leading lights of the Puerto Rican diaspora in the U.S. This diaspora may soon outnumber the island population, and their electoral potency might account for the Bush Administration’s promise to halt military operations.
Among those who have been arrested on Vieques is Dr. José Vargas-Vidot, an engaging, rotund 48-year-old com-munity activist. Vargas-Vidot has been working with the very bottom tier of Puerto Rican society for 15 years. In 1997, in the course of a government-sponsored survey, he discovered that no less than 40 percent of the people he tested in a rough area on the outskirts of San Juan called Cataño registered positive for HIV. Concluding that a needle exchange program for addicts might help prevent the spread of the disease, he began supplying clean syringes and treating the inmates in squalid heroin shooting galleries at various insalubrious spots around the island (it was Vargas-Vidot who took me to La Perla on the rocky heights above San Juan), using money he either raised himself or cajoled out of a generally indifferent government.
In spite of the outward appearance of escalating national pride, Vargas-Vidot laments what he sees as a debilitating deference toward the U.S. on the part of many Puerto Ricans. “For a hundred years people have been used to the rules coming from the U.S. There’s always a sense that someone is watching us, that we must be obedient to that great voice. Our fathers think of the U.S. as bringing prosperity.”
Vargas-Vidot experienced this generational split in his own family. “My father spent four years in the U.S. Navy and another eleven years in the Army, and when I got arrested on Vieques he didn’t speak to me for four months. My parents love me but. . . .” He grinned ruefully.
When I paid a call on the senior Vargas, he was ebulliently hospitable and refused to be drawn into any criticism of his son’s political activities: “I go with my boy. Whatever he does is all right by me.” But then he went on to express his affectionate memories of military service and his loyalty to the United States. “If Puerto Rico ever became independent, I’d move to the U.S. This place would be bust in a minute—no more Social Security, no more checks every month.”
Advocates of independence have always had to contend with the arguments of people like the elder Vargas, notwithstanding the fact that 50 years after Operation Bootstrap began to gather speed, Puerto Rico’s per capita income is about half that of Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the union.
The initial success of Operation Bootstrap owed much to a special provision of the federal tax code, section 936, that excused taxes on U.S. corporate profits earned in Puerto Rico. But Congress began phasing out section 936 in 1995, and now factories are decaying around the island. Similarly, the petrochemical industry that grew up in the 1960s depended entirely on a quirk favoring Puerto Rico in U.S. oil-import regulations. That advantage disappeared in 1973, and today the rusting towers of the petro-chemical plants, stretching for miles beside the coastal highway west of Ponce, are monuments to the difference the stroke of a pen in Washington can make.
Successive local administrations have striven for economic alternatives. Just outside Ponce the fine surface of Highway 10 winds smoothly up into the mountains to the picturesque town of Adjuntas, in the heart of coffee country. The road is there because in the 1970s U.S. consultants conceived another scheme, called Plan 2020, for the economic regeneration of Puerto Rico.
Key to the plan was the discovery of rich deposits of copper and other minerals under the peaks that loom over the town. Ore would be trucked down the new road to be processed and then exported through a megaport to be built at Ponce. U.S. copper companies prepared to clear-cut the mountain that was designated to become an open pit mine a mile (1.6 kilometers) wide and 2,000 feet (600 meteres) deep, promising jobs, a baseball stadium, and a lake once all the ore had been removed from the pit.
While politicians enthusiastically endorsed the plan, a small group of local people pondered the imminent destruction of their environment in exchange for, they discovered, just 200 jobs. They formed a group named Casa Pueblo and resolved to fight.
In an Adjuntas backstreet, Giovanna García, just born when the debate began, showed me around the permanent exhibition that Casa Pueblo maintains at its headquarters. The exhibit chronicles how the group slowly mobilized support, first in the town and eventually across Puerto Rico, until, in 1995, the government abandoned the project in the face of an unprecedented grassroots movement.
Most of this history was quite precisely detailed in a file that García showed me. It contained the full reports of informers assigned by Puerto Rican police intelligence to report on Casa Pueblo’s activities year after year, an indication of how deadly serious some of Puerto Rico’s politics have been in the recent past. Well into the 1980s the local police as well as the FBI secretly monitored large sections of the population deemed to be potentially subversive. When the Puerto Rican supreme court finally called a halt to the surveillance in 1987, there were 150,000 files steadily filling up with the details of people’s personal lives—as a horrified public discovered when the files were handed to their subjects.
These days, says García, Casa Pueblo has moved on to try and create something, “instead of just being negative.” She and her colleague Inés Sastre de Jesús took me up muddy trails to show me the forest they are tending on land reclaimed from the mining companies.
Mist swirled among the peaks, drifting over thickly wooded slopes originally denuded by jíbaros—farmers—who left in the 1950s to live and work in the crowded projects of San Juan and the Bronx. The woods have grown back, giving the landscape the appearance it must have had when this was the heartland of the Taínos, a collection of whose stone carvings are respectfully laid out nearby.
Meanwhile, much of the Puerto Rican landscape is disappearing under concrete as construction—frequently without benefit of zoning regulation—spreads in ever thickening clusters. Endless ranks of malls and factory outlets line the island’s highways, increasingly clogged by tapones, traffic jams (“Our new neighborhoods,” according to artist Carmelo Sobrino, who has started painting them).
Clearly there is a disparity between these signs of prosperity and dismal economic statistics, such as the bulging welfare rolls. Cheerful assurances that “we all live on plastic” didn’t sound like the whole story. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that as much as 20 percent of all the cocaine entering the States comes through Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands (these islands have the dubious advantages of a long coastline and, of course, no customs barriers with the mainland). San Juan is designated as one of just six High Incidence of financial Crime Areas in the United States, up there with New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Elías R. Gutiérrez, an economist at the University of Puerto Rico, says that the island’s illegal drug trade may eclipse its legal pharmaceuticals business: “Our illegal drug export earnings now match the legal variety,” comments Gutiérrez, “I’d say we are in trouble.”
Frank Stipes, head of Westernbank, a fast-growing regional bank based in Mayagüez, had no trouble confirming my observation that there seemed to be a lot of money about. Puerto Ricans’ aggressive spending habits seem to guarantee that, for example, the San Juan Mercedes dealership is one of the most successful in all of Latin America. “The reality is that the economy is much stronger than the numbers indicate. This is due to a strong, and I mean very strong, ‘informal’ economy.”
I cautiously remarked that I had heard that as much as 33 percent of the economy might be informal, meaning that it is based on cash that goes undeclared for one reason or another. “A third?” answered Stipes. “I don’t think so.” I waited for him to come back with some reassuringly lower figure. “I’d say the true figure would be around 50 to 55 percent,” he declared confidently.
This flood of so-called black money, Stipes was anxious to emphasize, is not due to traffic in drugs, prostitution, or illegal arms. “It’s just that in Puerto Rico people either don’t file a tax return or it’s not complete. Take the Fajardo marina—a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of boats. They belong to doctors, lawyers, and engineers, not drug traffickers. Those professionals may be making $400,000 a year, but they’ll declare $20,000.”
Eventually, like most conversations in Puerto Rico, the talk turned to political status. Stipes ran through the familiar arguments against any of the available options. Congress would never grant statehood; the present arrangement, subject to the whims of Washington, is unsatisfactory; independence would ruin standards of living. I did notice, however, that like every other Puerto Rican I talked to, the banker—who was on his way to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange and who has big plans to expand into the American market—invariably used the word “we” in reference to Puerto Rico and “they” when talking about the United States. It seemed a telling sign of a restive nation.