Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Turning to Divine Intervention

Crime and the economy were two of the recurring themes at a special church service I attended on Thanksgiving morning. Most who expressed their gratitude towards God were particularly grateful for having a job, though most still find it difficult to make ends meet. A gentleman stood up and said how grateful he felt for being able to spend Thanksgiving with his family, something which over 1000 people were not able to do. This represents the number of people murdered on the island thus far this year. According to the latest numbers published in El Nuevo Dia, the island's most widely read newspaper, as of November 27th, there have been at least 1,034 murders committed. This alarming statistic makes 2011 the most violent year in the island's history. During the same period last year, there were 889 registered murders.

In a recent survey conducted by El Nuevo Dia, public safety was ranked as the most worrisome issue facing the island. The economy, specifically unemployment, came in second. It was also revealed that nearly all of those surveyed have little or no trust in government institutions. The situation has become so dire that an increasing number of people are turning towards the church for a solution. Most believe the island is undergoing a social crisis, where morals and values have gone out the window. As 85% of Puerto Ricans profess to be Catholics, having the church intervene on societal issues is nothing anomalous. On numerous occasions, such as the student strike at the University of Puerto Rico as well as some labor strikes, the church has been called to intervene and serve as a mediator.

Puerto Rico has one of the highest concentration of churches per square mile in the world. Religion has exerted a huge influence in the island's culture and society, calling into question the existence the separation of church and state. The exact number of those who are actively practicing (i.e those who regularly attend church services) their religion is unknown. However, just from my observations, the majority of those who do go to church belong to a graying population. This phenomenon is also witnessed on the mainland U.S, where there is a notable decrease of church attendance amongst the younger generation. While listening to a brilliant debate on National Public Radio over the question, "Would the World Be a Better Place Without Religion?" I couldn't help but ponder over many of the excellent points which both sides were making.

A descendant of Charles Darwin was arguing in favor of this motion. In his closing statement, he argued that most societies with a highly religious population experience the most violence and have a high level of teenage pregnancies. He used the U.S as an example during the debate, but he could have easily used Puerto Rico as an example as well. On the other hand, a rabbi from the opposing team against this motion, argued that religion gave people faith and hope. Furthermore, a world without religion would be a very dark place. I would surmise that in Puerto Rico, religion has certainly not been a panacea to society's ills, despite the fact that many wear their religion on their sleeves, not to mention their car's bumper. However, it does inspire a sense of hope and community for some. Perhaps the bigger question is, can religion help a society, as a whole, instill a sense of values, morals and ethics, and act upon them? Thus far, unfortunately, the answer has been "no."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Shining Star

Earlier this week, U.S Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke at the Puerto Rico Education Summit regarding the urgent need for the island to improve the quality of its public school system. In his speech, he highlighted some important factors, which includes "embracing innovation, academic rigor, accountability, and effective strategies for accelerating learning for all students." He used The School of San Juan as an example, given that it was one out of hundreds of schools worldwide to be selected into Microsoft's Partner in Learning program. Two of the things that make The San Juan School so unique, besides the fact that it's a bilingual public school, is the existence of a pre-school program and its 7:30AM-5PM schedule.

Studies have shown that children who were enrolled in pre-school programs, compared to those who didn't, have higher incomes, attain a higher education level and are less likely to be involved in criminal activity when they become adults. This is particularly true for children who come from poverty-stricken homes. Nowadays, most local and state governments are spending more money building and maintaining prisons rather than investing in establishing pre-schools. The controversial Head Start program exists in Puerto Rico though.

While much attention has been given to the dilapidated conditions in many public schools throughout the island, the U.S Department of Education announced a $153 million grant to remodel an estimated 63 schools, not enough focus has been given on teacher performance and school curriculum. I live near a public high school, as well as a private one. Those who attend the former are probably in class no more than six hours a day, while those in the latter group less than five hours a day. As for the number of school days, I can say with much confidence, that for most of the island's schoolchildren, it is nowhere near those of top academic performing countries such as Singapore and South Korea.

In discussing how Puerto Rico can improve its public education system, Education Secretary Duncan did not bring up the issue of charter schools. This can largely be attributed to the huge resistance from the teacher's unions, as expected. Governor Fortuño, a strong supporter of public-private partnerships, has also gone craven when the topic of charter schools emerges. As local educators and government officials look for ways to overhaul the island's public school system, perhaps they should emulate The School of San Juan model. Much is at stake when it comes to the continuing laggard performance of schoolchildren, which speaks volumes on the island's future.

Note: The image above was obtained from the official Web site of the City of San Juan.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Occupying Beyond Wall Street

From the streets of Athens to those of New York, an increasing number of people are voicing their anger and frustration over the economy, the lack of jobs, and a mounting sense of injustice as the rich continue to get an even greater share of wealth. In a recent PBS Newshour story, it was found that the median salary of CEOs have quadrupled over the last four decades while average salaries for most workers remain stagnant. A torrent of fury was unleashed when it was revealed that Miguel Cordero, now the former Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), took home $400,000 in salary and bonuses last year. This revelation came at a particularly infelicitous moment when most island residents saw their electricity bills, which are already astronomically high, skyrocket even further. PREPA, a government entity, has also been operating at a loss for the past few years.

In Puerto Rico, there never seems to be a governmental agency not subject to corruption. The latest involves the Department of Education, where a number of officials have been charged with bribery and money laundering. Another controversial case involves the Fortuño administration, which has yet to receive final approval on the construction of the gas pipeline but has already assigned millions of dollars to contractors (many of whom are buddies of the Governor). Meanwhile, Medical Card Systems (MCS) has accused the government of falling back on its payments under the Mi Salud health plan, which is the Puerto Rican version of Medicaid. Government officials have emphatically denied such accusations. In the end, thousands of beneficiaries (mostly low income and the elderly) under the MCS plan of Mi Salud were temporarily left without coverage as the finger-pointing ensued.

On Oct. 15th, the island will be joining the Occupy Wall Street movement to express their indignation over a litany of issues ranging from governmental corruption to the demise of societal values. Critics of the Occupy Wall Street protests argue that the demonstrators lack a unified message. Nevertheless, there are indeed commonalities in all these demonstrations whether it be in San Juan or Madrid. Perhaps the most pronounced is the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots, and the urgent need for the latter (and the shrinking middle class) to collectively raise its voices. Let's hope that those in office are listening and will pay heed to this ever-growing movement.

(Note: the image above was obtained from www.occupypuertorico.org)

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Grim Outlook on Poverty

The U.S Census Bureau released some staggering numbers underlining the precarious economic situation in which many families in Puerto Rico are facing. According to the latest statistics from 2010, 45% of the island's families are living below the poverty level, defined as those having an annual income of $22,314 or less for a household of four. Back in 2000, the poverty level was at 44.6%. (Note: the island's population experienced a notable decrease over the past ten years). Moreover, the Census also revealed that 36.7% of the island's households are beneficiaries of the Nutrition Assistance Program (PAN). In theory, PAN (colloquially known as "cupones") functions similarly to the mainland's food stamp program. At the root of the problem is the high level of unemployment and the historic low level of labor participation rate, which is estimated at just under 40%. Both factors have pushed an increasing number of families on the precipice of financial disaster.

Particularly heartrending is a report published by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), which revealed that 56% of the island's children live below the poverty level. To help remedy this egregious problem, the U.S federal government has consistently provided economic assistance to the island. However, despite such social transfer programs, the island remains stuck in a sort of twilight zone. The reasons for this are numerous, ranging from a sclerotic local government to the misuse of public funds. A perfect example of the latter is exemplified by the Special Community Trust Fund, an initiative which begun under the administration of former Governor Sila María Calderón. This $1 billion social program designed to help families living in poverty has sparked a tremendous amount of controversy as the money in the trust fund has mostly dried up. Furthermore, it has far from achieved its intended goal to help the island's poorest communities. The purpose of this fund was to help construct homes in hundreds of communities that are currently living in dilapidated conditions. Many of the island's social problems, a skyrocketing crime rate and an increase in the high school dropout rate, can be attributed to the high level of poverty.

(Photo Credit: The image above was obtained from www.prensacomunitaria.com).

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Force to be Reckoned With

The U.S Department of Justice (DOJ) lambasted the Puerto Rican Police Department in a report released last Thursday condemning it of civil rights violations, corruption, and other "illegal activities." The findings confirm what many have long known about most police officers on the island. In fact, the American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU), along with other organizations, have long called for the U.S Congress to look into the abuses committed by the island's police force. Instances where the police have been accused of using excessive force have occurred on a countless number of occasions, most notably during the University of Puerto Rico student demonstrations. The report also stated that the PRPD, which is comprised of over 17,000 officers, has consistently failed to investigate domestic violence cases, and many police officers have been found to discriminate island residents of Dominican descent.

As expected, Police Chief Emilio Díaz Colón has come out in defense of his underlings. During a press conference, he stated that "not one single police officer has come to commit civil rights violations." Furthermore, he contends that the police force will continue to do its job with dignity and respect." He did concede that the PRPD will have to implement "some" changes, and will have to provide its officers with the necessary training as suggested in the DOJ's report, which put forth 133 recommendations. Nevertheless, specific details on how the island's police force will be transformed were not provided by the Police Chief. To his credit, the PRPD suffers from a severe shortage of funding, which raises questions as to how it will be reformed.

Meanwhile, Gov. Fortuño has stated that his administration has sent a proposal, back in March, specifying how 110 of the 133 recommendations listed on the DOJ's report will be put into place. As there seems to be no end in sight to the island's crime wave, the homicide rate is 22.5 per 100,000 residents (it is nearly double that of Louisiana's, which has the U.S' highest rate), most have long had little or no confidence in the PRPD's ability to keep the streets safe. By the same token, little trust is bestowed upon other local government agencies, i.e Department of Education, the Department of Family, among others. This latest blow from federal authorities will hopefully bring about some substantive changes in the PRPD, but nobody is holding their breath. According to Gov. Fortuño, it can take as long as 15 years for the reform process to come full circle.

(Photo credit: Ricardo Arduengo/Associated Press)