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Once You Get There, Puerto Rico Makes You Want To Stick Around
BY Dan Simpson, Post-Gazette Associate Editor
March 1, 2003
What has palm trees, warm seas, 80-degree-plus weather but nice breezes, good rum, great seafood, spicy music, is part of the United States but different and Spanish-speaking, and is a relatively cheap hop, skip and a jump from Pittsburgh? Puerto Rico .
At the end of weeks of bone-chilling cold, sidewalks crunchy with salt and a period of exceptional labor, teaching at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon as well as trying to make sense on paper of various threats to world peace -- Iraq, North Korea, at least some of the Bush administration --I decided to head south for a week with my wife.
Puerto Rico looked good, although the journalist and ex-diplomat in me was warned of impending information-deprivation by the fact that there were no news stories about Puerto Rico in any media outlet that I look at in the weeks preceding the trip. With the exception of the more expensive corners of San Juan, the capital, there are no English-language newspapers for sale in Puerto Rico . Not that that was anything to think about lying on the beach at Guanica, on the south coast.
I did briefly explore the possibility of encouraging a buy-out of the Post-Gazette by the San Juan Star with a move for me there, but finally just ordered another rum and bagged the idea.
Getting there from Pittsburgh on a snowy Sunday was a bit of a problem. New federal security at Pittsburgh International is your- tax-money-working-to-torment-you in full cry. Curbside check-in people were complaining about the feds: They work indoors, are not shorthanded like the airlines, and their pensions and other benefits -- not to mention their jobs -- are secure.
The feds' boss, President Bush, earns $400,000 a year; US Airways' senior executives get $15 million golden handshakes when they leave, having demonstrated their competence by plunging the airline into bankruptcy. Those two phenomena are unrelated, of course.
America's state of orange alert impinged on us during the trip. In Charlotte, US Airways boarded us, let us sit on the plane an hour or so, and then told us they had no pilot for the flight. The earnest young man making the announcement said that the pilot had been called up to the military the day before and none of the pilots on hand in Charlotte, one of US Airways' hubs, was qualified to fly over water, even warm Caribbean water.
His appeal to patriotism failed miserably in the face of passengers' brusque realization that they had just lost a day of their vacation in Puerto Rico , whether it was to Mr. Bush's war or to the airline's lack of planning.
Puerto Rico is an incredible blend of rich culture and history and perfect scenery and climate.
In Ponce, the island's second city, on the south coast, is located the Ponce Museum of Art, put together by a former governor of Puerto Rico , Don Luis A. Ferre, now 99. Don Luis made his money selling cement for highways and started buying art because he loved it and from a conviction that Puerto Rico should have a world-class art museum. He went for European paintings from Spain, Italy, Holland and then-not-yet-hated France.
The museum's signature painting is a famous pre-Raphaelite work, "Flaming June" by Lord Frederic Leighton, a portrait of a young woman with red hair in a translucent, flaming orange dress. The museum's 3,000-work collection also includes an El Greco, a Rubens, a Murillo and a recently acquired Goya. Its director is Hiromi Shiba, Japanese and an expert in European Baroque art. The museum, opened in 1959, was designed by Edward Durell Stone, who also did the Kennedy Center.
There is apparently some trouble in paradise, although we drove around the country at night seeking out lighthouses and seafood restaurants and wandered around San Juan on foot, feeling perfectly safe. A certain amount of drug-dealing and money-laundering takes place in or through Puerto Rico, given its long and largely unpatrolled coastline and easy access to the mainland.
The dividing political issue for Puerto Ricans has always been whether to seek American statehood as Hawaii and Alaska did, to ask for independence, or to retain commonwealth status, chosen in 1952. Each time the question rises for Puerto Ricans in an election, the subject gets chewed over at length, then they vote to stay with commonwealth status, roughly halfway between statehood and independence. Puerto Rico gets 85 percent turnout in its elections, as compared with the U.S. mainland's 51.3 percent in 2000.
There are lots of theories why Puerto Rico does not seek statehood or independence. One is that Puerto Ricans are fundamentally conservative people.
The island was a Spanish military stronghold for centuries until the United States grabbed it from Spain in an 18-day military campaign in 1898. When most of Spain's other Latin American colonies were seeking independence in the early 19th century, royalists from Venezuela, Colombia and elsewhere fled to Puerto Rico for refuge. Slavery was not abolished until 1873. When Cuba was fighting for independence from Spain in the 1890s, one cause of the Spanish-American War, the Puerto Ricans were making a gentle transition from colonial rule to partial autonomy.
Puerto Ricans have a very good deal from the U.S. government the way it is. They pay no federal tax on income earned in Puerto Rico . There are tax incentives to American companies to locate on the island. The federal government pays all Social Security and welfare to Puerto Ricans, 60 percent of whom qualify for it even though the island has the highest per capita income in Latin America.
Statehood would undoubtedly result in more financial responsibilities devolving to the island's population. That in return for two senators and a congressman? Whatever for? Independence might be fun -- a president, a U.N. seat, embassies in San Juan. But with that would come financial and other responsibilities that Puerto Ricans don't have now. Only an estimated 5 percent of Puerto Ricans think independence is the way to go.
Our government is obliged for political reasons to pay attention to Puerto Rico . There are 4 million Puerto Ricans on the island; but 2.7 million live on the mainland. Roberto Clemente was among them; Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin are famous examples today.
Puerto Rico is fun, and easy to visit. As I scraped the snow and ice off my car in the parking lot at the airport Monday night at midnight, I wondered who exactly has it right? My mind drifted back to the big yellow-melon moon over the beach at Guanica. Shall we glance at that plane schedule again?