Monday, February 21, 2011

Big U.S Chains Rule

Imagine yourself showing up for work only to find out that your employer is no longer open for business. You are suddenly out of a job, and your company had not given any sort of notification of what was to happen. This was the predicament which employees at the local Puerto Rican pharmacy chain, El Amal, found themselves in this past weekend. To top it all of, many of these employees are owed three weeks pay. Although El Amal had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009, and things have not been looking all that rosy since then, it still came as a shock for its employees and many around the island.

For many, including yours truly, it was actually surprising to see El Amal hang on for as long as it did. Anyone who has visited Puerto Rico probably noticed the strong presence of Walgreens, the largest American drugstore chain. In my neighborhood alone, within a five mile radius, there are three Walgreens stores. Lo and behold, CVS Pharmacy also opened up several stores on the island last year. American retail chain stores dominate the local Puerto Rican marketplace, and this doesn't just apply to drugstore chains. As we were passing by Dorado on the highway the other day, I couldn't help but notice the inextricably long line of cars at the drive-thru at Krispy Kreme. I still remember last year when the first Krispy Kreme opened in Guaynabo, where dozens of people spent the night outside in hopes of being the first ones to step inside the doughnut mecca. Krispy Kreme has since opened up two other stores, one in Caguas and the other one in Dorado.

Most American fast food and retail chains do very well in Puerto Rico. In fact, KFC and Wendy's are both expanding their franchises on the island. This is not only bad news for the ever-growing obesity problem but it is also a mixed blessing for the local economy. As we've seen with El Amal, many Puerto Rican businesses have become affected as they lack the massive capital and economies of scale to compete with these huge American corporations. On the other hand, these companies do create jobs and pay taxes. Aside from Capri and Pitusa (both are discount retail stores) there aren't many local retail chains. The same goes for fast food, except for my beloved El Meson Sandwiches. While the statehood issue has always been a subject of ongoing debate on the island, the majority are ebullient when it comes to the arrival of yet another Gringo-owned retail store or fast food chain.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Power to the People

The entire world watched, riveted, by the events taking place in Egypt, a country in turmoil since January 25th. Ever since then, thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand for the country's President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled the country for 30 years, to step down. As the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof sums it up in his Op-Ed piece, "We are all Egyptians." Perhaps one of the most remarkable outcomes of this revolution is the ability of the masses to use social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, to unite and create a formidable force, which eventually resulted in Mubarak's downfall.

Coincidentally, although in completely different circumstances, the former Egyptian despot was not the only one to "resign" yesterday. Joining Mubarak was José Ramón de la Torre, now the former President of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR). This came as no surprise, since de la Torre was widely considered to be inept and has not resolved many of the problems facing the university. De la Torre served as President for just a little over a year. Interestingly, while demonstrations in Egypt have now ended with fireworks, students at UPR are still protesting against the $800 fee. This latest round of protests began in November, but problems within UPR have persisted for quite some time now.

Unfortunately, the situation at the island's most prominent university has only gotten worse as clashes between the police and students have turned uglier. One strong commonality between the demonstrations which took place in Egypt, and the ones still going underway in UPR, is the role in which social networks have come to play in gathering support and mobilizing forces in reaching a common goal. In the case of Egypt, it was the Facebook page "We are all Khaled Said"
which helped drive people to the streets. At the university, the "UPR Sin Cuota y Sin Policia" page is one of several created to publicize their cause. As Egypt awakens to the post-Mubarak era and begins to move forward in rebuilding its country, those in UPR seem to stuck in the same tenuous situation as the demonstrations continue.

(The photo above was obtained from It was taken during today's march, "Yo Amo La UPR.")