November 29, 2008

Luis Fortuño, Obama, and the problems of Puerto Rico today

Damien Cave has written an interesting article about Fortuño's victory in the New York Times, but I thought I'd argue a few points, particularly since there wasn't anywhere to comment on the article as far as I could see.

First off, I thought the opening was very telling:

Republicans in Washington cheered when Luis G. Fortuño, one of their own, was elected governor of Puerto Rico on Nov. 4. But here on the island, where American affiliations are often worn and dropped like accessories, he now describes his victory as Obamaesque.

But then begin the understatements:

Mr. Fortuño emphasized in an interview that “cambio,” or “change,” had been his slogan since 2006. And like President-elect Barack Obama, Mr. Fortuño said the economy would be Job 1 for his administration, managed with a youthful nonpartisan approach.

Not only that, but there were blatant accusations that Fortuño had stolen a great deal of his campaign from Obama, in particular his website layout, which looked admittedly very much like Obama's. And Puerto Ricans were hearing as much about "change" as we were. From a distance they could have been the same campaign.

The recession now emerging in places like Florida and Ohio has been a fact of life in Puerto Rico for three years. Unemployment has climbed to nearly 12 percent. Taxes have gone up, purchasing power has declined, and the island’s roughly four million residents are unlikely to be patient with their new leader.

Very true and yet doesn't nearly begin to describe the problem. The unemployment rate? That's the official number--it is in reality significantly higher and has been for a long time. Taxes have gone up in the sense that the IVU/sales tax didn't exist until a couple years ago. Certainly purchasing power has declined--and it was already terrible enough. Something this quotation and really the rest of the article ignores is that, even more than all these factors, Puerto Rico's economy is dramatically affected by the American economy, and anything felt in the States is felt at least twice as strong on the island. It's hard, then, for us to find all the causes of the current problem on the island itself, and harder still to expect a politician to be able to solve the problem without the U.S. improving its own economy... no matter what Luis Fortuño thinks.

However, I would still encourage him to try to do as much as possible, of course. No sense in giving up.

Another problem the article correctly points out:

The structural challenges are immense. Government here plays an outsize role, employing 20 percent to 30 percent of workers on the island, and it is on the verge of bankruptcy. The current administration said this week that it would end the year with a $2 billion budget deficit. One official suggested it was struggling to make payroll, and some institutions — like the Center for Puerto Rican Studies — already report that they have not received government money they are owed.

Luis Fortuño, however, has come up with a solution that I (and others) fear is not really going to solve anything:

Specifically, he said he would institute a hiring freeze that would, with attrition, lead to a 3 percent to 5 percent cut in government staffing annually and save $1.5 billion in four years. He has also turned to the private sector for cabinet-level posts, and called on wealthy business owners to invest more on the island.

Yes, you'll get rid of some employees, but then where do they go? Which is a bigger problem, the government being too large of an employer or unemployment? While yes, I agree that something must be done, is now really the time? These people are not going to be able to find a job as even more companies and their factories leave the island. It's not mentioned in the article if Fortuño has some way of magically attracting businesses, but it'd be really irresponsible to just ignore the people who won't get a job or will lose a job.

Despite laying out all the problems, there's still optimism expressed by the interviewees. I find it kind of hard to believe. After all the cynicism in this last election... well, we'll see, I suppose. What other choice do we have?

November 27, 2008

Re: Re: Referendum or Restitution?

So the never-ending status question has been raised again, this time with the can of worms by Gil the Jenius and then the can of snakes from DONDEQUIERA. In this second post a series of questions are posed and in my usual fashion I've decided to respond. Not in order of the questions, of course, but in the order they fall in naturally. If we're going to stick with metaphors, let's call this the can of anacondas, shall we?

The first thing that caught my eye was the question of why Puerto Rico doesn't carry the same grudge for Spain that it has for the U.S. This is pretty simple to explain; when has anybody ever not wanted what they can't have? And yet during Spanish colonization there was plenty of animosity towards the Spanish--perhaps not as much as in most Latin American countries, for a few reasons: one, the size of the country--the population was very small and very spread out, with most small towns nearly unreachable--two, Puerto Rico was a bastion for the last Spanish empire supporters of Latin America, as many of the former politicians, military leaders, and richer families supporting Spain fled to the island, where they continued to have positions of power, and three, Spanish rule and the system of hegemony accompanying it maintained the careful racial and political system of the time. Puerto Rican hacendados were desperately clinging to the power they had, especially in light of the revolution in Haiti, which frightened the rest of the Caribbean, and el Grito de Lares, which greatly depended on the effort of many slaves. But there was still plenty of discontent, some of which was concentrated into the efforts of Cuba, some of which waited for the new autonomous government which came into existence in 1898, a couple of months before the U.S. invasion. It's important to note that the autonomy that the Spanish government bestowed upon Puerto Rico actually granted a few more rights than the current setup does, in particular real government representation in las Cortes de Cádiz as opposed to the voteless Resident Commissioner in Congress.

However, to continue to link Puerto Rico with Spain and Latin America in many ways is unfair. While the similarities and shared cultural aspects are countless, Puerto Rico has gone down a very different political path, one that involved many abrupt changes, slow cultural shifts, and everything in between. In this sense we can't link all of Puerto Rico's problems to its Latin heritage. In this same manner the status and other issues mentioned in the blog post above aren't the cause of crime. I'd say that, among these contributing factors, the biggest one is poverty.

... which brings us to my main point. Although the U.S. has not necessarily done the damage that, say, Russia has done to Georgia (in the previous post's example), even in regards to Vieques, it also has not done it justice, especially concerning the poverty of the island. Most people at this moment will point to the great economic changes that have taken place in the island, especially in the last 50 years. Believe me when I say these changes are superficial. For one, both the U.S. and Puerto Rican political efforts have sought temporary fixes for permanent problems. But the biggest cause I see of poverty is the importation of U.S. products. This culture of dependency thing that a lot of people rail about is much more serious than we think. After all, Puerto Rico gets over 90% of its imports from the U.S., which is a huge amount considering that nearly everything that is consumed in Puerto Rico is imported. In comparison, how much does the U.S. import from Puerto Rico? While technically the island exports more than it imports, nearly all of it is pharmaceuticals--which means the money is still going to the American companies who own the factories on the island, rather than the Puerto Ricans working in them. This great disbalance would help to explain why the Puerto Rican economy is nearly stagnant and unable to catch up to the American one.

It also helps explain why the U.S. continues its hold on Puerto Rico. While the U.S. has very little to lose from the independence of Puerto Rico in the traditional colonial sense, it has everything to gain from keeping it. A great percentage of the money spent in Puerto Rico is returning directly to American corporations, who in turn pay taxes on it to the U.S. government, who in turn pays only a tiny percent of Medicaid and other social services in comparison to how much it should be paying based on the poverty level. Because all the money is literally flowing out of Puerto Rico, the government is crippled with a lack of funds and (even if it were in theory capable of such a move) couldn't begin to create a system to replace or supplement U.S. aid.

Skeptics (including myself) now are rightly bringing up a couple of questions: one, can the Puerto Rican government actually be effective and not corrupt, and two, why does the Puerto Rican people not act against such a cycle? The first one doesn't have a clear answer; I'd honestly love to promise that such a government is possible, but politicians are politicians so it's only fair to be cynical. Therefore we should try to find a solution acknowledging the inevitable problems, or perhaps in spite of them. The second question, on the other hand, is much more difficult to answer. In fact, it is one Puerto Rico and many of its political movements have been grappling with since the times of Luis Muñoz Marín and the development of today's Commonwealth--how to engage and awaken a fiercely loyal and admittedly stubborn voting public? Unfortunately, most see this as near impossible feat, understandably. It seems that the only thing that would provoke a sudden change in opinion would be a dramatic and traumatic event, not necessarily Russia-Georgia scaled but perhaps another Vieques.

That's not to say I wish that something would actually happen to Puerto Rico ('cause I don't) nor that I think we should be forcing people to believe in something they don't want. That's not fair. However, I think more awareness about history, politics, and economics would begin to tilt things in another direction, or at least allow people to make a more informed decision. Confidence would also make a big difference--Puerto Ricans should understand that there's no reason an independent Puerto Rico would reflect the image they carry of stereotypical Latin American corrupt governments and devastating poverty (which, by the way, are not uniform nor mandatory for all countries during all time periods) and that indeed Puerto Rico could reach a greater level of success should it so desire it. That it is to say, there is no inherent reason for Puerto Rico not to do well independently, just as nothing really is inherent at all. Naturally we could expect plenty of difficulties from every direction, and a well-designed process towards independence would anticipate and plan for as many as possible. But the obstacles alone, as scary as they may seem--and they are, because they represent the loss of security which Puerto Rico clings to through the continuation of the current status--, should not frighten anyone from making a decision that ultimately would be the best for the country. The options are these: either accept that a few sacrifices today will mean a changed country tomorrow, or Puerto Rico stays as it is and faces a future that contains few profound and necessary changes, thus condemning it to simply getting by rather than any chance at excelling... or, of course, statehood, which would bring more security but far less cultural freedom. All of these choices have sufficient reasons behind them, which I respect as someone who can't really be a part of the politics. But when people vote with fear, or rather because of it, as in they don't really want what they're voting for but fear what they really want (whether or not they realize this is the reason they vote as they do), there is a problem. I'm not talking the lesser-of-two-evils problem that many people face when at the polls, since usually the impact that decision will have on the person's life is many times minimal if they don't hold any of the issues that highly. Instead, I'm referring to the continuation of a system most people don't want to be a part of (hence that 50-some percent "none of the above" vote in the '98 plebiscite) and the denial of the great potential Puerto Rico has. Deny it as you may, there's no way to foresee what an independent Puerto Rico could accomplish or what it could fail at. But based on the Commonwealth's track record, consisting of dependency, poverty, and corruption, it's pretty easy to predict how Puerto Rico will continue to get by and nothing more, all while trapped deeper in the mire.

All that said, I'm not about to pick up the torch. Since I'm not exactly on the island, nor do I feel it fair for me as a non-Puerto Rican to have a say in Puerto Rican politics (useless blog posting does not count!), there's not really much I could or should do. If I've touched on a truth here or there, eventually it will be discovered and then perhaps change can come--or perhaps not. Knowledge doesn't imply change, or even the ability to change. The cynic (realist?) in me can't imagine anything changing anytime soon, except maybe the transition to statehood at some point. And honestly, it's not my place to admonish anyone should that happen.

That brings me to my other point, which is my coming out of types as a supporter of independence for the island. This is despite the fact that, again, I would never dare vote in the Puerto Rican elections because I don't believe in letting my vote cancel out someone's more legitimate vote, as well as that an independent Puerto Rico would make my relationships with the island and my friends there that much harder to maintain. Because of this admitting it to myself has been kind of difficult, but I'm reassured by the fact that it won't really affect anyone. So don't take it too seriously, especially in light of what I said above: that there are plenty of valid reasons for any position and I don't really oppose any of them. In fact, if any one status option is finally selected as a permanent answer, whoever leads the government has to account for all of their concerns or face huge problems.

I think that's about all I have to say for the moment. As always, I encourage friendly and not-overly-passionate debate (being overly enthusiastic on the internet is a waste of time, as far as I can tell) and any questions. I think I sufficiently addressed most of the questions in the original blog post referenced above but if anyone has any pressing desires for a direct answer to one or two let me know.

¡Feliz día de San Guivin!

...Puerto Rico's favorite saint.

It's a little late but I hope everyone is enjoying their pavo... and whatever else may accompany it!!

November 23, 2008

Word of the Week: Charro

Charro (or charrería) is a great word. It means lame, something of bad taste. Supposedly it comes from the Mexican "charro", one of those singers who gets all dressed up (and from a Puerto Rican perspective, very lame indeed)... which in turn supposedly comes from "charro" being a label for the people of Salamanca (in Spain). None of this being proven, but rather educated guesses.

November 12, 2008

The consequences of "Vota o Quédate Callao"

As usual el Ñame is keeping me amused, this time with an article titled "Daddy Yankee Golpea A No Votantes Que Se Quejan". Definitely worth reading, guys. In fact, I think I might have to print this one out and distribute it...

November 10, 2008

Just a couple of links

First, I found this blog post with photos of Puerto Rican graffiti, which I thought was pretty cool. According to my own limited travel experience I can safely say that Puerto Rico doesn't really have too much graffiti, but it's interesting nonetheless!

And, keeping up with the political trend, El Nuevo Día has an article about how the Obama and Fortuño administrations can find common ground. It seems as though new Resident Commissioner Pierluisi, a democrat, might be the key. We'll see...

November 5, 2008

Puerto Rican Obama... in Spain?

I saw this and couldn't resist linking to it here... a video of a Puerto Rican "Obama". Supposedly, they look similar (not so much to my eye but whatever). For me the most interesting part is the guy's accent... he mentioned he'd been living in Spain for 5 years, and you can tell that his Puerto Rican accent has been suppressed, but at the same time you can still hear it...

The day after

As I'm sure we all know, Luis Fortuño will be the next governor of Puerto Rico. Does this mean I get to stop complaining about el cabezón for a little while? Anyways, I thought I'd pass along these great photos petchie has uploaded of election day in Puerto Rico. Almost makes me wish I were there to witness the locura... almost.

November 3, 2008

Tomorrow's Elections: ¡Ay Dios Mío!

I haven't probably given enough attention to the upcoming PR elections (or to anything, really; sorry guys). Honestly, things have been a little chaotic and occasionally too ridiculous to even want to write about. It seems pretty obvious how things will turn out tomorrow, but it should be interesting to see how the votes are distributed, especially for the PIP and PPR parties...

November 1, 2008

Quick Reminder: Daylight Savings Time

Just making sure last minute, as those of us in the mainland set back our clocks tonight, that everyone knows Puerto Rico does not observe daylight savings time. This means that Puerto Ricans will NOT be adjusting their clocks and they will be one hour ahead of the U.S. Useful to know!