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The National Geographic Fiasco…Strikes A Raw Nerve… Undivided Loyalty

The National Geographic Fiasco

By Miriam J. Ramirez

April 13, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The San Juan Star. All rights reserved.

Now that a couple of weeks have passed, I think it is high time we take a cold, sober look at the National Geographic article written by Andrew Cockburn. As you might recall, Mr. Cockburn wrote an article that disparaged Puerto Rico, portraying us as an Island of opportunistic moral cowards, drug addicts and believers in voodoo.

Immediately, the Resident Commissioner in Puerto Rico, Anibal Acevedo Vilá, started bleating and complaining to the National Geographic, demanding a meeting with the editor and so forth. And I had to ask myself: What the heck is he complaining about? After all, one of the first things we found out after the article came out was that Mr. Cockburn was escorted by Fomento personnel at all times. In Sila-like fashion, after the article hit the fan, they immediately shook off any responsibility for its content. Then, there is the article itself. Frankly, I am hoping that the people quoted in the article will raise their voices and claim that they were misquoted or their comments taken out of context, because I cannot believe that self-respecting people would say the things they are quoted as saying. But it has not happened.

It starts off with Jacobo Morales’ old, tired skit about the about the true nature of Puerto Ricans. Of course, alcohol is involved. The gist of the skit is that when a boricua drinks, his true nature comes out. And guess what? According to Jacobo, that nature is for independence. Perhaps Jacobo has not noticed, and even if he has, I am sure he would deny it, but the underlying message he is bringing forth is that people on this Island are hypocritical cowards, inhibiting their true selves, which only come out when they are roaring drunk. Jacobo’s portrayal is then given credibility by an unknown "government official." Not a pretty picture, is it? But Jacobo is described as being very happy at his portrayal.

We are then treated to some quotes by SJ Star columnist Juan Manuel García Passalacqua, who, taking a breather from his review of those secret documents that only he and he alone has access to, describes his ancestors as smugglers and intimates that things have not changed much; Ricardo Alegría reminding us for the umpteenth time that he saved Old San Juan from local developers turning it into a "mini-New York."; Dr. José Vargas, who took Mr. Cockburn to drug shooting galleries, and gave off the distinct impression that PR is just swarming with drug addicts. So, these fine boricuas gave Mr.Cockburn a heck of an impression, didn’t they?

So yes, the article is skewed, biased and totally off the mark. But as you can see, folks, Mr. Cockburn did not engage in this smear job all by himself, he had plenty of help from some well known people whose political agenda is well known. And it is not the first time it has happened, for those same kind of derogatory comments about the Island were made in the halls of Congress by Mr. Acevedo Vilá himself and Sila Calderón’s favorite lobbyist, Charlie Black, during their desperate efforts to waylay the Young Bill. The only difference is that this time, the comments were made for public consumption, and now all of the residents of the Island can see what these people really think about the rest of us. I hope that you, as I will, will not forget how our local "patriotas de cafetín" disparaged our Island.

Miriam J. Ramirez is a senator in the Puerto Rico Senate and a member of the New Progressive Party.

National Geographic Strikes Raw Nerve

Iván Román

April 6, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Maybe the full-page close-up of a black woman is what got people mad. Her eyes are closed, lost in the African-derived bomba rhythm she is dancing to. A single bead of sweat gleams in the light, dripping toward her cleavage.

Or maybe it was the heroin addict who was quoted on how trade relations between the United States and Puerto Rico cause islanders to pay more for almost everything -- including his fix.

Or maybe it was just that, from the get-go, the National Geographic article "True Colors: Divided Loyalties in Puerto Rico" called this fairly developed, truly consumerist U.S. territory with 3.8 million people a "semicolony" -- which gets everyone's hackles up here for a variety of reasons.

But the 22-page full-color spread in the March issue by Andrew Cockburn and photographer Amy Toensing certainly drew the wrath of many on this island that has long been self-conscious about what others write about it and about what Washington sees.

"I read it and I see that we live in a Puerto Rico of our imagination," said Eduardo Morales Coll, president of the Ateneo Puertorriqueño, one of the island's foremost historical and cultural institutions. "It was a hard jolt because it put a mirror right to our face. At first, I was angry, but then I eased into reality."

Much to the critics' chagrin, some of that reality includes the fringes -- fringes such as the four impeccably dressed "high society" ladies watching a game of polo, which is so elitist on this island that it even surprised most people who chimed in on the ensuing uproar, or what some called a "national" debate.

And considering it "national" was exactly the point. Even government and tourism officials and many people who railed against the article on talk-radio shows -- many of whom hadn't even read it -- spoke about Puerto Rico and the United States in terms of "we" and "they," something done here all the time.

That's how the article concludes, with a banker rushing to his office to make the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange, telling the writer about the familiar "we/they" thing.

"It seemed a telling sign of a restive nation," Cockburn writes in his last line.

"The editors wanted to show the true colors of Puerto Rico, so he had to emphasize the things not emphasized by the Pollyanna government ads," said political analyst Juan Manuel García Passalacqua, who is quoted in the article. "There is not a single lie in there."

Angry government officials pulled more than $50,000 in advertising from National Geographic Travel and other sister publications.

Rep. Anibal Acevedo Vilá, the island's sole representative in Congress, and Milton Segarra, who heads up economic development, wrote to the magazine's editor about the many other musical influences in Puerto Rico besides African bomba and about being the fourth-largest purchaser of U.S. goods per capita.

They wrote about Puerto Rico's strong middle class, its research institutions that annually supply dozens of Hispanic engineers to the United States, its 200,000 people in the U.S. military since World War I. Vilá and Segarra blasted using a picture of the African-based santería religion rather than its strong Roman Catholic and Christian background.

But, alas, it all comes down to political status. So Vilá and Segarra's letter stated that Puerto Rico's commonwealth status, which offers the island a certain degree of autonomy, was not an example of "divided loyalties," as Cockburn lays out. Rather, they said, it helps solidify ties to the United States.

"The ongoing debate on status demonstrates our commitment to free and open expression -- not, as your article implies,

anti-American sentiment or a desire for independence," their letter states. "Our unique relationship means that we can be proud of our culture and at the same time proud of our permanent union with the United States."

To the commonwealth's critics, that's hogwash. But they hated the article for other reasons.

They didn't like the pictures of protesters arrested in their push to get the U.S. Navy out of Vieques, or images of people waving and wearing the Puerto Rican flag every chance they get. Statehood advocates feared those images would revive the thought that Washington will never accept a mostly poor, Spanish-speaking state.

To antiracism activists, outrage from tourism officials who rarely put a black person in ads promoting Puerto Rico ring hollow. And although some say it wasn't "balanced," pro-independence activists who gathered for a public discussion of the article Tuesday night saw a silver lining.

They said it reaffirmed a distinct Puerto Rican identity -- what some might call the concept of a nation.

Said José Milton Soltero, the discussion's organizer: "The fact that it brings Puerto Rico's situation to the world's readership is a good thing."

Puerto Rico's Undivided Loyalty


April 18, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Miami Herald. All rights reserved.

In recent years Puerto Rico received much publicity as its islanders insisted on ending more than 60 years of U.S. Navy bombing on Vieques. For many, these often-confrontational efforts have hurt the U.S. territory's relationship with the United States, exposing the existence of a volatile bond between the two.

National Geographic magazine fell victim to the U.S. -- Puerto Rico drama in reporting on this phenomenon as the Navy prepares to withdraw from Vieques island in May. In its March issue, the feature True Colors: Divided Loyalties in Puerto Rico generated great consternation within the Puerto Rican community.

In an open letter to the magazine, Puerto Rico's Resident Commissioner -- the island's nonvoting delegate in the U.S. Congress -- and Puerto Rico's Secretary of Economic Development and Commerce expressed their indignation and views on the U.S.-Puerto Rico relationship:


''In addition to our strong culture, Puerto Rico also boasts a dynamic business community that is inextricably linked with and mutually beneficial for the United States,'' they wrote. 'As the United States' eighth-largest trading partner and the world's fourth-largest purchaser of U.S. goods per capita, Puerto Rico buys more products than many larger countries such as Italy, Russia or China. In 2001 alone, Puerto Rico purchased $16 billion worth of U.S. goods, fueling the creation and maintenance of over 270,000 U.S. mainland jobs.''

As a U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Rico is probably the best kept secret for 53 of the U.S. Fortune 100 companies already operating there as well as for the U.S. Armed Forces.

With a buying power of more than $25 billion a year, Puerto Rico offers an unrivaled market for U.S. goods and services. With a population larger than half of the U.S. states, it also has a readily available, skilled and mostly bilingual workforce of U.S. citizens.

Such is the availability of human resources that the U.S. Army's two recruiting companies on the island consistently are tops in recruiting worldwide. Close to 40,000 Puerto Ricans currently serve on active duty or reserve status in the U.S. Armed Forces.


More than 100 of the U.S. Fortune 500 multinationals operate out of the island, generating more than $47 billion in exports in 2002. Twenty-five percent of all pharmaceutical products manufactured in the United States are shipped from Puerto Rico, and 16 of the country's top-20-selling prescription drugs are produced there. Puerto Rico is the fifth-largest exporter in the entire hemisphere after the United States, Canada, Mexico and Brazil.

Commonwealth officials note that Florida is Puerto Rico's No. 1 trading partner, ranking as the largest consumer of Puerto Rico's exports. It's also the No. 1 destination for Florida's exports.

With almost as many U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico living in the United States -- more than 3.4 million -- as on the island, National Geographic clearly missed the ''true colors'' and ''loyalties,'' which are clearly those tied to U.S. opportunities, jobs and dollars.

As a territory of the United States, Puerto Ricans on the island should be the ones asking where are the true colors and loyalties of the United States toward the island?

Raúl Duany is chairman of the Puerto Rican Professional Association in Miami.

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