Puerto Rico, An Island In Search Of Itself
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. Did you know that Puerto Rico teeters on the brink of financial calamity? Probably not. The US territory and the 3.5 million American citizens who live there barely register in our headlines or in our concern. This is how Zika, the virus linked to microcephaly in babies, was discussed as it spread from South and Central America.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: We do not believe that there will be a major outbreak of Zika in the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Except, it had already hit Puerto Rico, where there have been 40,000 confirmed cases to date, over 3,000 of them pregnant women. But the island often doesn't count, even though it has more residents than 20 US states. However, you may have heard about Puerto Rico this week because they were heading to the polls last Sunday to become one of us.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Just had a major push for Puerto Rico to become the 51st state.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Puerto Rico comes one step closer to becoming a state. The island overwhelmingly voted for statehood, with nearly half a million votes.
SEAN SPICER: Now that the, the people have spoken in Puerto Rico, this is something that Congress has to address.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Actually, though, the people of Puerto Rico have not spoken because most of them boycotted Sunday's plebiscite. In a time of desperate economic crisis on the island, there was little appetite for an $8 million nonbinding vote, especially since the real power lies with a Republican Congress on the mainland, which is disinclined to accept a Baroque Spanish-speaking Democratic-leaning 51st state. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico is at a crossroads, less about its political status than its very identity.
Producer Alana Casanova-Burgess reported this week from the island, where the words and symbols Puerto Ricans use to define themselves are in flux.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: On San José Street in old San Juan last weekend, you almost couldn’t tell there was about to be an election, not only because so many Puerto Ricans were going to boycott the vote but also because selfies were happening.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Five years ago, artists took the shabby wooden door of a nearly ruined brick colonial building and they painted it in the red, white and blue of the Puerto Rican flag. It became iconic, the stuff of postcards and the background to family photos on the island and for the diaspora, like for Joel, now of Maryland but formerly of Mayagüez, who arrived to find an austere black and white flag, instead.
JOEL: It’s like a symbol of what is going in Puerto Rico and, for me it represents a little bit of sadness, a little bit, you know, like desperation.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: That’s because last summer the island woke up to a shock. President Obama had just signed the PROMESA Act, which set up a board to supervise Puerto Rico’s finances. Facing over $123 billion in debt from bonds and pensions, the island’s government said it couldn’t pay back bondholders and provide essential services, which had already been slashed after a decade of economic crisis. Carmen Maldonado was visiting from Naranjito in Puerto Rico.
[CARMEN MALDONADO SPEAKING IN SPANISH]
INTERPRETER FOR CARMEN MALDONADO: All Puerto Ricans know what it means. Some like it, some don’t but they all know what it means.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: A few words about the Puerto Rican flag, the normal one. It is everywhere on the island, hanging from balconies and stuck on bumpers, on bikinis and hats and handkerchiefs and in diaspora neighborhoods on the mainland. The flag was actually designed in 1895 in New York City by a group of Puerto Rican revolutionaries working with Cubans on a joint push for independence from Spain. There’s a famous line from that time by the Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodríguez de Tió that Cuba and Puerto Rico are two wings of the same bird. And, in fact, the red and blue of their flags are inverted. Cuba became independent, Puerto Rico became part of the US in 1898.
But from 1948 until 1957, it was actually illegal to fly the flag on the island and even to own it. The Puerto Rican legislature passed a law that made any discussion of independence, including songs, a crime.
[MAN SINGING IN SPANISH]
Around that time, the US relationship with Puerto Rico changed.
EMILIO PANTOJAS: There is a saying in Puerto Rico that you have to give someone the chicken wing so that you can eat the chicken breast. Hay que darle el ala para comer de la pechuga. It was a policy of tolerance and concessions in exchange for maintaining a stable colony during the Cold War.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Emilio Pantojas is author of the book, Crónicas del Colapso, Chronicles of the Collapse, about the history of the fiscal crisis here. We met on a wet morning last week outside the capitol building in San Juan in front of a row of bronze statues of the nine US presidents who have visited Puerto Rico.
EMILIO PANTOJAS: We have Obama, Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Eisenhower, Truman, Roosevelt and the other one, Herbert Hoover and Theodore Roosevelt.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Although Puerto Ricans have been American citizens since 1917, they can only participate in the primaries; they cannot vote for president. And most of the visits memorialized here were short. Some weren’t even official.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: And Obama came for just a few hours, right?
EMILIO PANTOJAS: Yeah, he – actually, he came for a fundraiser.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: And so, Pantojas has no love for these statues but they do help tell a story about how the US has shaped Puerto Rico. He says that coming out of World War II there was a consensus that decolonization would help avoid another catastrophe. It became a topic of conversation at the Yalta Conference, where Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met to discuss what would come next for war-torn Europe.
EMILIO PANTOJAS: Roosevelt was harassing Churchill to decolonize the British Empire. He also had asked Stalin and he said, you need to release Poland. And Stalin said the Soviet Union has been invaded twice during the 20th century, always through the Polish Corridor, so what do you want me to do? And then he replied to Roosevelt, I mean, what are you going to do with Puerto Rico? You have a colony, you have to decolonize. Roosevelt was irated and he said, you know, we have no colony, Puerto Rico is different. But the fact of the matter was that Puerto Rico was a colony.
Roosevelt dies, comes Harry S. Truman. The first thing that Truman does is he appoints a Puerto Rican governor because before 1946 governors were appointed by the United States president and they were all Americans, white Americans with English names.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: The next step was to allow Puerto Ricans to elect their own governors and then, in 1952, to allow them to adopt their own constitution.
EMILIO PANTOJAS: And so, what you have is a colony by consent.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: That was when Puerto Rico was rebranded as a commonwealth. In Spanish, Commonwealth is known as Estado Libre Asociado or ELA, ela, meaning Associated Free State.
GRETCHEN SIERRA-ZORITA: Which it’s [LAUGHS] not. That’s a misnomer.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Because Puerto Rico is neither free nor a state. And in the last year, that’s become even clearer, says Gretchen Sierra-Zorita who’s with the National Puerto Rican Agenda, which advocates for the island in Washington, DC.
GTETCHEN SIERRA-ZORITA: But, you know, the ELA is kind of like a meaningless word.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Last summer, Puerto Rico was shaken by a series of developments in Washington, DC. First, the Supreme Court ruled in a double jeopardy case related to gun trafficking, which also tackled a bigger question of Puerto Rico's autonomy.
YARIMAR BONILLA: In this case, we decide whether Puerto Rico and the United States count as separate sovereigns under that doctrine.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: The justices ruled that Puerto Rico isn’t distinct from the US when it comes to prosecuting crimes. Then the US Congress established that humiliating Fiscal Review Board.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: And so, this House measure would create a federal oversight board to negotiate with investors to determine how much Puerto Rico will pay them back. That board would also oversee the island's finances. And one House Democrat of Puerto Rican descent says Federal Oversight Board is an assault on the island's sovereignty.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Puerto Rico's economy is already tethered to the US. It can only receive imports on US-owned and operated vessels, making goods more expensive. Washington granted tax breaks to companies that invested in Puerto Rico, then took them away, spiking unemployment. To raise money, the Puerto Rican government then turned to bonds, but the island status meant no taxes could be collected on them and paying out on the bonds had priority over any other spending. But for many Puerto Ricans, the board appointed in Washington was the last straw that exposed an ugly truth. They were never really free.
GRETCHEN SIERRA-ZORITA: There was no doubt that we were a colony.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Gretchen Sierra-Zorita.
GRETCHEN SIERRA-ZORITA: And I do use the word “colony” a lot more freely. I thought maybe we should have stickers. You know how they have stickers where you have the outline of the geographic area you’re identifying, so the whole island would be in black and maybe inside in white you would put “colony” - I actually think it’s quite spiffy but I’m not sure anybody would understand it. [LAUGHS]
YARIMAR BONILLA: Puerto Ricans were promised that they weren’t a colony.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Yarimar Bonilla is a professor at Rutgers University, studying the statehood movement in Puerto Rico. She created the website PR Syllabus.
YARIMAR BONILLA: That the ELA was a political status that was a decolonizing status, the US government has made clear that that’s not the case. And this is why there’s this movement, Se acabaron las promesas, the end of the promises.
[SOUND OF MARCHERS CHANTING]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: On May 1st, thousands marched in San Juan to protest budget cuts and demand an audit of the debt. Online memes mock public officials and austerity measures, including a parody of the Justin Bieber hit which lampoons the governor.
[PARODY SINGERS/UP & UNDER]
But it’s not always so funny. In old San Juan, Andres Vera and his wife were visiting from Naranjito and taking pictures of the black and white protest flag.
[ANDRES VERA SPEAKING IN SPANISH]
He told me they are of a generation where they learned in public school that they lived in an independent territory that was only partially associated with the United States. But they now know that the US Congress wields the real power, which means Puerto Rico is a colony. It was for them a sudden revelation.
[VERA SPEAKS IN SPANISH]
This has been like a slap in the face.
ANDRES VERA: That’s right.
DR. ALFREDO CARRASQUILLO: It’s a juncture of sadness, uneasiness and a lot of anxiety.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: I visited the offices of Dr. Alfredo Carrasquillo, a psychoanalyst and the head of the Institute for Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Citizenship at the University of the Sacred Heart in San Juan. He also happens to be married to the mayor.
DR. ALFREDO CARRASQUILLO: It is important for Puerto Ricans to put into words what is being felt at this point, to question the narratives that we have used to name and to describe our relationship with the US. For most Puerto Ricans, it’s a broken promise, a promise that, really, the US never made, that we built, that we constructed.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: How do you deal with that kind of realization, with that kind of slap in the face?
DR. ALFREDO CARRASQUILLO: It’s touch because it requires us to go through a mourning process. For example, my mother, when the economic crisis was starting, she would always say, oh, Americans will not allow this to get too serious. They will help us. Now she knows that they have not helped us, eh, and that they are not interested. So Puerto Ricans have been confronted with a reality, which is that the US is not what we thought it was. And, perhaps for the first time in our history, we have to take charge of our own destiny. Eh?
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Carrasquillo says part of that narrative that the US would provide was shaped by the mainland's investments on the island, projects to industrialize Puerto Rico and hold it up during the Cold War as a prosperous capitalist alternative to Communist Cuba and the poverty of the rest of Latin America. The Commonwealth meant wealth!
MALE CORRESPONDENT/NARRATOR: As an example of an underdeveloped land that is going through an industrial revolution without violence and without Communism, Puerto Rico has been called a showcase of America.
DR. ALFREDO CARRASQUILLO: And the narrative was if we were able to get to that point with commonwealth, wonder how much we can get with statehood? So in that sense, yes, the US government invaded Puerto Rico, yes, they have made decisions here and there, but we are not kidnapped.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: But he says it's crucial for the mainland to understand Puerto Rico hasn't just taken, it's given too.
DR. ALFREDO CARRASQUILLO: Take, for example, the number of Puerto Ricans that have been killed or who have fought in US wars, eh? The proportion of Puerto Ricans is way bigger than any other states in the US. So is that fair? It is up to US citizens in the States to say, hey, Madam Congresswoman, Mr. Congressman, do something about Puerto Rico. Show that we are a democracy and not an, an empire.
But there’s an identity crisis in the US at stake regarding that. The US wants to operate as the country that sees itself as the democracy of the world or is it gonna be a colonial power?
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: There is an irony in Puerto Rico regarding democracy. They take voting much more seriously than Americans on the mainland do. It’s not unusual for voter turnout to reach 80%, compared with, say, 60 for the US in 2016. Election days are always on holidays or weekends, which is why when the two minority parties called for a boycott of this recent plebiscite on the island status, many analysts questioned whether it would even be possible to keep Puerto Ricans from the polls.
[CHATTER/MUSIC IN BACKGROUND]
And yet, last Sunday the beaches were packed and the voter turnout was a historically low 23%. The statehood option won because those were because the only voters to cast ballots, some wearing American flag t-shirts or lapel pins. It was another confusing plebiscite from Puerto Rico. Five years ago, an election yielded over half a million blank ballots and in 1998, over half the voters rejected all options and went for None of the Above.
I spoke to Yarimar Bonilla, the Rutgers professor, again, the day after the plebiscite. She says everybody lost.
YARIMAR BONILLA: The people who support statehood, they lost because this is not a vote that the statehood party can really use in Congress. I mean, we all know that 97% of Puerto Ricans don’t support statehood. And I think the people who are claiming victory on the boycott, they actually lost because they have failed to produce another option for Puerto Ricans.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: The lack of options seems to be reflected in the lack of adequate words to describe not only what Puerto Rico wants to be but what it currently is. That's why Bonilla is stuck on the word “colony,” because Puerto Rico is not a colony in the traditional sense. It comes close but it doesn’t quite capture the reality.
YARIMAR BONILLA: So I feel like people are using it as a kind of placeholder for something that they don't have a fully developed concept for yet, and that perhaps they won't have a concept for it until they’ve realized what they want to replace it with. I would like a conversation among Puerto Ricans about what they want, what is the relationship that they want with the US and to forget about the boxes that are offered to us at the plebiscite.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: In the end, says psychoanalyst Alfredo Carrasquillo, you have to dispense with the false narratives before you can create something new. It’s a daunting undertaking.
DR. ALFREDO CARRASQUILLO: So far, what we have done is respond to what others, the Spanish government or the American governments have decided regarding our history. It’s very painful but it's a beautiful opportunity to be the founders and creators of our own history.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP & UNDER]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: It’s said that politics is the national sport of Puerto Rico, but sometimes it seems as though the political parties can't even agree on what game they're playing. Whether it’s team statehood or independence or status quo, the divisions are so fierce they can't get close enough to scrap. They don’t even agree, for instance, on the shade of blue on the Puerto Rican flag. Those pushing independence use a sky blue, those seeking statehood, the blue of the American flag.
Even so, what I heard again and again on the island was that almost everyone is coming around to the word “colony” and even if it doesn’t quite fit, at least they can agree on that.
For On the Media, I’m Alana Casanova-Burgess.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman, Micah Loewinger and Leah Feder. We had more help from Jane Vaughan. And our show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Terence Bernardo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s vice president for news. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.