Puerto Rico – Island of disenchantment

uno-de-los-arboles-navidenosBy Robert Friedman

Hispanic Link News Service

This is the first of a two article series on current political and economic issues in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico

On my trip back to Puerto Rico last month, it snowed twice a day. Kids were running back and forth to catch the gleaming flakes in their ungloved hands.

  Concurrently, the San Juan “snowfall” was taking place indoors, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. at Plaza Las Americas, the Caribbean’s largest shopping mall. The foam flakes were churned out for the holiday shoppers from a machine in the ceiling.

The mall’s 300 stores — from Abercrombie & Fitch to Zales Jewelers — appeared to be doing brisk business. Over in the tony Condado section of the city, the recently renovated La Concha Hotel on Ashford Avenue was alive with the sound of salsa, as tourists and locals crowded the lobby bar and dance floor.

Yet, such upbeat scenes often caught by visitors are more than ever at odds with the reality of what’s happening on the island. Further walks around the city will find many stores and restaurants shuttered. “For Sale” signs planted on the property of once-stately homes. Recently built, luxurious-looking condominiums sit forlorn, unoccupied.  

The island’s economic recession enters its ninth year, which unlike in the states, shows no signs of abating.

The Puerto Rico government continues to run into obstacles as it tries to resolve such mind-bending problems as a $70 billion debt (think Detroit, or Greece); $37 billion in unfunded pension obligations for teachers, cops and judges and nearly 15.4 percent jobless rate. Fewer than half of Puerto Ricans — 46 percent — who are able to work actually hold jobs.

A continuing drug-fed crime epidemic puts the island murder rate at six times higher than that of the U.S. mainland. An accelerating exodus has caused the largest migration to the states since the post-World War II “West Side Story” days.   

Puerto Rico’s fiscal problems have Wall Street in a dither, with agencies reducing the credit rating of once-highly-sought island bonds, with no taxes to pay on the interest. Standard and Poors on Feb. 4, marked down its bonds to junk status, while other agencies rating them at barely one degree above junk.

Meanwhile, the latest Census figures show that the island’s population has dropped from 3.8 million a decade ago to a current 3.6 million. That is projected to shrink to below 3 million by 2050, if the current exodus continues.

Almost 500,000 Puerto Ricans who left for jobs on the U.S. mainland in the 1950s were mostly poor and rural. Many in the current crop are professionals — young doctors, engineers, teachers .

This has led one local commentator to note that the next Puerto Rican-inspired musical staged on Broadway may be called, “Upper East Side Story.”

Whatever savings people may have had are disappearing,” says 49-year-old Carlos Sánchez, who has run the McLeary Mini-Mart for the past 19 years in Ocean Park, a middle-class section of San Juan. “Before the 2008 recession I would take in about $1,500 a day. Now it’s about $800, just enough to pay the bills. You earn just enough to keep going.”

Customers must first press a buzzer to enter the convenience store. “For the first 16 years, I only had two robberies,” he recollects. As the recession grew, he was robbed four times in six months.

The island birth rate is in steep decline. Some 713,000 students were getting their education in the island’s 1,500 public schools in 1980, making the size of the Puerto Rico public school system under the U.S. flag second only to New York. Now 415,000 kids are enrolled, with this number dropping yearly.

Puerto Rico has gone through hard times before. In the 1930s, the island was dubbed “the poorhouse of the Caribbean.” In the 1950s and 1960s it was called a “showcase for democracy.” “Operation Bootstrap,” started in 1947 , allowed U.S. companies to set up tax-free corporations on the island this brought about a burgeoning middle class. Those tax breaks are gone, as are so many of the manufacturing jobs. Since 1996, factory jobs have plummeted from 160,000 to 75,000 in 1996.

Through it all, Puerto Ricans seem to have developed a special knack for survival. But many today believe that only a change in the island’s highly ambivalent colonial relationship with the United States will allow Puerto Rico and its residents to escape from its current morass.

Part two in this series focuses on the continuing controversy about the island’s political status issue.      

(Freelance writer Robert Friedman was Washington correspondent for the San Juan Star from 1992 to 2008, when it discontinued publication. Reach him at Friedmanro@gmail.com.


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