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Tourism, Cultural Affairs, Media, Caribbean, Marketing

Locals Appalled By Controversial Article In National Geographic

Magazine reaches affluent tourists whom PR Tourism Co. spends millions of dollars a year to entice


March 6, 2003
Copyright © 2003 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rico was prominently featured on the cover of the March 2003 edition of the Spanish-language version of National Geographic magazine, but most island residents wish it hadn’t been. They felt the story "True Colors: Divided Loyalties in Puerto Rico," written by freelancer Andrew Cockburn, was biased and didn’t project the island positively.

"I didn’t see any redeeming value in the article," said Rick Newman, president of the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association. "Rather than being objective, it appeared the writer had a mission to find all the negative aspects of the island."

The very beginning of the feature infuriated many, prompting some local executives to send letters to National Geographic challenging it to return to Puerto Rico and conduct the review in a way that is respectful of the great accomplishments of Puerto Ricans.

Besides quoting a government official in San Juan who noted cynically that the whole island would vote for independence if the bars remained open on election day, Cockburn conversed with heroin addicts in La Perla who assured him that the high price of a fix compared with what it costs in New York is "another example of the unfair trade relations between Puerto Rico and the U.S."

Others quoted in the story include lawyer Hector Gonzalez Pereira; political analyst Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua; Ricardo Alegria, founder of the Puerto Rico Institute of Culture; artist Carmelo Sobrino; economist Elias Gutierrez, and Frank Stipes, president of Westernbank.

"Obviously, any negative publicity affects the destination," said Jose Suarez, designated executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. "This is an anthropological report that presents some of the realities of our island and of most parts of the world that have social problems."

Perhaps the biggest problem is that National Geographic readers are the affluent people whom the Tourism Co. spends millions of dollars each year to lure to visit Puerto Rico.

"We are going to react appropriately to this article," Suarez said. The Calderon administration hadn’t issued a response as of press time Monday.

CARIBBEAN BUSINESS, however, did speak to Cockburn about the article. He said he visited Puerto Rico having no preconceptions and merely reported what he saw.

"People tend to go on about how interesting Cuba is, but the reality is that Puerto Rico has terrific people and an interesting culture," said Cockburn, who noted that he had previously visited the island on brief business trips. "The island is more stimulating than I imagined."

In some of his field notes, found on the website, Cockburn writes that he visited a heroin-shooting gallery in San Juan to observe Jose Vargas Vidot, a physician who operates a needle-exchange program.

"I thought Dr. Vargas was an interesting and commendable person, unlike other people who turn their noses and like to pretend a place like La Perla doesn’t exist," Cockburn told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. "Puerto Rico shouldn’t be ashamed of La Perla; it is a fascinating place. I think it’s a great mistake if Puerto Ricans think they have to cover up and pretend [the island is] some kind of Disneyland."

Raul Bustamante, chairman of the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau, said he hadn’t read the article but better pictures of the island could have been taken. "What I dislike most is that these types of magazines always portray the worst of the Caribbean and of South America," he said. "There are prettier things that could have been photographed, rather than drug addicts, sacrifices of chickens, and protesters."

The website also contains the field notes of photographer Amy Toensing with a special eight-minute "Sights & Sounds presentation of photos under the categories "Cross Cultured," "Drug Hub," "Choosing Sides," "Stop the Bombs," "Island Rhythms," and "Feminine Strengths."

"Let us introduce you to the contradictions, challenges, and cultural flavor of Puerto Rico," the photo presentation begins. "Join Amy Toensing and explore a land where politics is called the ‘national sport’ and pride in being Puerto Rican runs deep."

"I wanted to put a face on these people who are very connected to the U.S. but not quite seen because of an unbalanced relationship," narrates Toensing. "I wanted to give them a voice and a face."

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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