Puerto Ricans are a very, very proud people — sometimes too proud. We do not take criticism well. When asked about Puerto Rico’s greatness, Boriquas (Puerto Ricans) will talk of beauty queens, boxers, ball players, and famous actors who have come from the island or descended from the island’s diverse population in the United States.
It’s often said, there are more Puerto Ricans in the United States than on the island itself. The focus on beauty queens and artists is wrong, however. They are individual accomplishments, and even if we focus on less famous people like engineers at NASA, officers in the US military, research scientists, or even business people, we are still talking about anecdotes.
What about Puerto Rico as a whole?
When an “outsider” like me starts to criticize, it is often taken as an insult. The pride Puerto Ricans feel about their island is so strong that it ignores the legitimacy of any such criticism. It also reclassifies Puerto Ricans like myself as outsiders, instead of people who have the right to make such statements.
Let’s face it: the truth is truth, regardless of who offers it and even if it hurts. It is my island too, and I think the island can do much, much better.
Natural beauty is under constant assault by polluters and developers alike. The island has political corruption and chronic infrastructure deficiencies that must be addressed. Today, I’ll focus a bit on infrastructure.
One constant complaint I hear from readers, friends, and family alike is the lack of good quality internet service. This isn’t a matter of being able to play games or download music, both of which are great, but this hurts businesses. When you hurt businesses, you hurt people.
The answer you get when you complain to your hotel or local provider is (and not always in so many words), “That’s just Puerto Rico.”
When water service and power service go down regularly, that’s just Puerto Rico too. When politicians get caught taking money from drug dealers, when roads are full of pot holes, when you can’t get anyone to answer the phone at the Puerto Rico Police Department’s press office, as occurred to a friend working on another article recently, that’s just Puerto Rico.
But does it have to be? Do the people of Puerto Rico have to accept that they get better service from “los del punto” (local drug dealers) to solve their problems than from government? If they want justice, locals know where to turn, and it is not the local police. Take a moment and look here for a list of the names of the 903 reported murders from 2013. The year 2012 had 977 murders, down 158 from 2011, when more than 1100 were reported.
If you live in Puerto Rico long enough, you learn to adapt. It’s not exactly the United States, but not exactly an independent country either, so we just accept. We adapt; we try to be flexible, patient. Yet patience and tolerance of incompetence and corruption has gotten the people of Puerto Rico and the Commonwealth, as a whole, nothing.
I recognize change is hard and expensive. Change requires tough decisions, and for those of us proposing such changes, it requires a thick, thick skin. It requires the people of Puerto Rico to open up to outside criticism — to accept or even welcome a good old-fashioned outside consultant in all primary service areas. It also requires standing up to unions and over-reaching judicial decisions.
The bottom line is that if publicly provided water services go out every weekend in a community, nearly every week, for every month, for every year of a decade, government has failed — period. Did you know that by one estimate, Puerto Rico’s water and sewer authority loses 60 percent of its water to leaks and thefts?
That is not and cannot be acceptable. Similarly, if electric service goes out regularly in the same community for a decade, government has failed.
If people are faced with replacing tires on a regular basis because the same pot holes haven’t been properly repaired for 10 years, that is too long and government has failed. If the local drug gang has more influence than the police, if people fear local criminals more than they respect authority, if schools fail to meet their basic responsibility to teach, government has failed. In a republican democracy, that means you the people — or dare I say, we the people — have failed.
There are small community groups and organizations that are trying to fight back. Some are opposed to violence; others are supporting specific community development. That’s good, but that is not enough.
It is time for Puerto Rico to face the reality that the only way forward is to engage in fundamental change. When we dig in our heels and resist fundamental change in the face of overwhelming evidence of the need of change, we become complicit in the damage that is being done.
You and I become responsible. By your complacency, you are responsible for what is wrong in Puerto Rico. You are responsible for 3,000 murders in three years; you are responsible for US$70 billion in debt; you are responsible for failing schools; you are responsible for broken roads and broken promises on water, power, phone and internet services.
You, not the other party, not the other governor, not the other anything — just you. So what are you going to do about it?
We can keep the music, the language, and the culture. We can keep the natural beauty and our affinity for being more than fashionably late. We can keep the affection and the passion that make us unique. We can keep all the things that make being Puerto Rican amazing.
However, we have to stop the things that hurt our island, the things that hurt our fellow citizens. We have to — fundamentally and radically if needed — change the way we do business with ourselves and each other. We have to step up and no longer tolerate voting along party lines or reelecting incompetent officials. We have to reject dishonesty from our politicians and demand results.
It’s our island, and we would like it back now.