Puerto Rico’s Theatre of the Absurd (OPINION)

Dec 6, 2022
2:42 PM

A BMW sits in a pothole in Humacao, Puerto Rico (Samuel Cepeda Arcelay/Twitter)

SAN JUAN — A photo recently made the rounds on Boricua social media that showed a car half submerged in a pothole —or boquete, in Boricua lingo— somewhere on the pockmarked roads of the archipelago.

The hole is enormous, more like a crater, and it ate half of the car, leaving its vehicular ass in midair.

The image is a fine metaphor for the state of Puerto Rico today and the role played by the pro-statehood Gov. Pedro Pierluisi and his New Progressive Party (PNP) in the deterioration of the island.

Roads are so bad that a superhero called Pink Bubbles, all dressed in phosphorescent pink and a tutu resembling El Chapulín Colorado, spray paints cartoonish drawings around the boquetes to alert drivers of the danger.

The island is decaying, and Puerto Ricans are worn out. Forget the myth doled out by the Anglo media of Boricua resistance. Instead, people are tired and angry at the current state of the island and the harshness of everyday life.

The island’s downward spiral started before Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, but this is the worst I have ever seen. It’s heartbreaking. It is a depressing facsimile of what used to be—and what used to be has not been that great since 2006, when the collapse of the corporate tax break 936 became official.

Since then, the archipelago has choked under a $70 billion debt, an imposed fiscal control board (la Junta), cuts to education and pensions, a collapsing health service,  Hurricanes Irma and Maríaearthquakes, corrupt governments —including the ousting of a PNP Gov. Ricardo “Ricky” Rossello— and a pandemic.

Adding insult to injury, the gentrification of the island —primarily by crypto bros hiding behind Act 60— has marginalized Puerto Ricans in their own homes.

Puerto Ricans are forced to leave the island for many reasons, and not all are economic. For example, I spoke to a handyman working on one of the houses on the street in Old San Juan where I live, and he told me he was leaving due to the challenges of accessing medical care.

“I am leaving not because I want to,” he said. “I am leaving because I can’t get the proper medical care because so many doctors have left. If I stay, I die.”

Today, government corruption, misconduct and nepotism form an endless banquet, with local politicians and a myriad of suspect businessmen feeding at the table. (Look up hedge fund manager John Paulson’s sidekick, Fahad Gaffar, and Venezuelan banker Julio Herrera Velutini.)

Pierluisi, the PNP, and the Junta are the architects of this mess. Yet, in the land of the theatre of the absurd, Pierlusi and Co. insist all is okay and getting better.

Yet all one has to do is walk the streets of San Juan to know this is a big, fat lie. What you see are abandoned buildings —even big hotels— covered in graffiti, storefronts closed, uneven sidewalks chewed up like an old dog toy —even in the posh Condado area— an unkempt capital city, traffic lights that don’t work, and the bane of every Boricuas existence: constant blackouts courtesy of the U.S.-Canadian company, LUMA Energy.

The soundtrack to all of this is the roar of a crap-colored Lamborghini clumsily navigating the Old City’s narrow streets, while the average Boricua struggles to make ends meet.

Add to that rampant luxury real estate development, often on environmentally protected land, fueled mainly by the crypto bros and tax evaders from the United States.

All types of shady characters roam the island’s streets, but one of the most infamous has to be Brock Pierce, who has had to explain his ties to Jeffrey Epstein and others.

Pierce and a merry band of crypto bros descended like locusts on the island in 2018 with the insane fantasy of building a crypto utopia, like Colonel Kurtz and Apocalypse Now. They called their vision Puertopia” as if they had just discovered the island, not pounced on an archipelago leveled by natural disasters.

There are now two Puerto Ricos: one of haves and one havenots. It’s bizarre, a nod to the dependency theory of the late Brazilian economist Theotônio dos Santos, who laid out how the wealthy developed nations are enriched by sucking the others dry. Meanwhile, La Fortaleza nods its head and counts the money received from the sale of the island.

“Nos quedamos sin Isla” —We will be left without our island— said my Uber driver Luis Armando while driving me to a meeting. “We are tired of this. Angry and tired.”

But there is a silver lining.

The 2020 elections marked the end of the island’s two party-system, with the PNP and the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) known longer seen as “the Untouchables.” Pierluisi got only 33 percent of the vote, squeezing into La Fortaleza like he would a pair of tight trousers with the lowest percentage in his party’s history.

The PNP peddles the possibility of statehood and the flow of fondos federales. Still, anti-American sentiment on the island is high, and corruption and profound mismanagement have damaged the party’s credibility.

Also, Pierluisi and PNP Resident commissioner Jenniffer González —rumored to be preparing to run for governor in 2024— recently received a swift slap in the face in Washington delivered by Republican Rep. Jody Hice.

“Every time we have a hearing here on Puerto Rico, it’s one of two things: …It is coming here with hands out asking for more money, and or, asking for statehood,” Hice said. “The government must take responsibility and face the major issues facing Puerto Rico before we even begin any serious discussion about statehood.”

“We are not even close to having a serious discussion about statehood,” he said.

And there goes the main selling point that keeps the PNP clinging to power: the chimera of statehood.

This would be the time for the opposition parties to enter the breach. But the PPD is a mess, and what the Puerto Rican Independence Party and the Citizens’ Victory Movement are going to do remains to be seen.

At this point, the way forward is unclear, creating apathy. Many people don’t believe anything will change because, in terms of the parties, “todos son iguales.” You hear it from the Uber driver, the waiter at a restaurant, the woman who sells coffee in a plaza in Old San Juan, and all the other everyday men and women on the street.

But the undercurrent of anger and frustration feels different—especially among the younger generation, which could lead to a movement toward change—hopefully.

Puerto Rico must change, or it will continue to atrophy into something unrecognizable. There must be a revolution of ideas and the courage to see them through.

Courage is the tricky part.


Susanne Ramírez de Arellano_monicafelix-7 (1)Susanne Ramirez de Arellano is the former News Director for Univision Puerto Rico and a writer and journalist living in New York City. Comments can be sent to her email. Twitter: @DurgaOne