Four members of the U.S. House of Representatives recently traveled to Puerto Rico to get feedback on the newly minted Puerto Rico Status Act, one more in an exhausting line of drafts to tackle the colonial status that has held the island hostage since the United States invaded in 1898. Instead, the trip became a stage for local political theater and proved that journalism in Puerto Rico is the art of dancing in the dark without music—devoid of substance and allergic to the truth.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), who is Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, spent three days on the island with Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez (R-PR), Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood nonvoting member of Congress. They spoke to public sector members about the discussion draft for a bill that would allow Puerto Rico’s residents to vote on the island’s territorial status.
They also met with politicians of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP), the pro-status quo Popular Democratic Party, the pro-independence Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), and Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (MVC), which has an anti-colonial platform.
The proposal would authorize a new referendum with federal oversight that would give Puerto Ricans a choice between pre-defined statuses of statehood, independence, or sovereignty in free association with the U.S. It is the first bill proposing a binding referendum that would not present the option of keeping the island as a U.S. territory (or colony, depending on who you ask).
Grijalva, Velázquez, and Ocasio-Cortez tried to convince Boricuas that Puerto Ricans were central to the process. That is inaccurate because, in the end, Congress will decide on the draft proposal, but there you have it.
The only thing that is for sure, at this point, is that if —and that’s a big if— the draft proposal passes the House of Representatives, it will die in the Senate swamp. On Wednesday, Grijalva expressed some concerns with Latino Rebels’ Pablo Manríquez about the future of the bill, and last week, Ocasio-Cortez told Manríquez in an exclusive interview what revisions she is considering to the bill after her visit to Puerto Rico.
Back on the island, the PNP claimed victory for statehood, with PNP Governor Pedro Pierluisi stating that the draft was a sure path to statehood. The PPD railed against the end of the territorial option, and the PIP basked in the House members’ attention, stating that the draft was a good first step.
Traditional Boricua media —and by traditional, I mean local television, newspapers, and radio— hailed the visit as if it were the Second Coming of Christ and proclaimed the discussion draft a done deal, a fait accompli.
It isn’t far from it. It’s a discussion draft.
If politics is the ability to control your environment, then the congressional weekend of June 3-5 in San Juan was an excellent example. It showed that what passes as journalism in Puerto Rico is not the art of fierce political and cultural debate; it’s the art of dancing in the dark without music—a ridiculous jig performed on screens and the radio.
It is an art steeped in insularismo.
There are exceptions (which are growing significantly in social media) like Bonita Radio and the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, but they do not have (yet) the public reach on the island that traditional media has.
Puerto Rico’s traditional media consistently fails to clarify that Washington is unwilling to accept Puerto Rico as a state, even in the best times. And at present, when the U.S. is a house divided, and Americans are facing the fact that President Donald Trump was at the center of the deadly attack on January 6 on the U.S. Capitol, it’s impossible.
It acts more than just like a colonial press; it is a politically bought media. The government and the two dominant parties —the PNP and PPD— wield a big publicity budget and control the message. As a result, media darlings (most of whom are not journalists) and heads of media have no qualms pushing their political agendas.
Still, they stop at telling the truth regarding the United States and its relationship with the archipelago. El Nuevo Día, the island’s newspaper of record, and Telemundo and Univision —the two major broadcasters— operate similarly. Their agendas are clear and undisguised.
It’s not that they are unaware of the facts. On the contrary, they know them well. It’s a concerted effort to twist the truth so it pleases whatever political party pays the bills or a particular “talent” favors.
I worked for four years as the News Director for a major broadcaster on the island, and it was an eye-opening, soul-busting experience. It was like stepping into an alternate world‚ where reason and accountability are as rare as the Hope Diamond.
One must fight off the daily pressure from politicians and La Fortaleza to tell the story the way they want. And it doesn’t stop at pressure—personal attacks are also the preferred option. Everyone has a dog in the race, and balanced analysis be damned. Long live disinformation.
And don’t even think of cross-pollination between local media and the Boricua Diaspora press. The latter is persona non grata, to be kept at bay at all costs. The truth is that the Diaspora press has power where it counts—in Washington, which is not welcome
This is not to say that congressional weekend was not historical. In some ways, it was. The draft finally recognizes that the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States is colonial and must end. And it’s not bad that this new project is discussed on the island and that Puerto Ricans have a say, but this is where the good news ends.
In the end, the visit was Boricua political theater at its best, with a showy guest list. Unfortunately, the local press excels at media shows and keeps the Puerto Rican people isolated and complacent by selling them a political narrative, never the unvarnished truth.
If there is one thing this new discussion draft can do—it’s to put a mirror to reflect the half-truths, break the insularismo and make the local media accountable.
Susanne Ramirez de Arellano is the former News Director for Univision Puerto Rico and a writer and journalist living in New York City. She has a blog in El Nuevo Día called Dos Caminos y Una Subversiva. Comments can be sent to her email. Twitter: @DurgaOne