Friday, March 25, 2011

Far from Ready

Regardless of whether one is a sympathizer of the red (pro-colony, pardon, pro-commonwealth), blue (pro-statehood) or green (pro-independence) party, everyone in Puerto Rico agrees on one thing: the island is far from ready to cope from the threat of a tsunami. In fact, only 11 of Puerto Rico's 78 municipalities are said to have most of the necessary emergency measures in place should one hit the island. More than half, 44 to be precise, of the municipalities are in low-lying areas and are at risk of being hit by a tsunami. In the aftermath of the devastating events which took place in Japan, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands performed a tsunami drill this past Wednesday. The purpose of this UN-organized drill, called the Caribbean Wave Lantex 2011, was to test the emergency alert system and to better prepare citizens in the event of a natural disaster.

The first time I saw tsunami warning signs in Puerto Rico was during a visit last year to Aguadilla. While we were heading to the beach, I remember seeing an evacuation route marked by arrows, leading people up to higher ground. Although the island does not even come close to Japan's record, back in 1918, Puerto Rico did experience a 7.4 earthquake and was hit by tsunami waves nearly 20 feet high. The strongest we had was as recent as last Christmas Eve, when the island was rattled by a 5.4 quake. Since then, small seismic movements have been registered by both the Puerto Rico Seismic Network and the U.S Geological Survey (USGS). Perhaps because Puerto Rico has rarely seen earthquakes of immense magnitude, such as the ones in Haiti and Japan, most people are not aware that the island lies on two active tectonic plates and lies just south of the Bunce fault.

To both geologists and seismographers, it is no surprise to see Puerto Rico experience such seismic activity. However, when it comes to the general public, much work needs to be done to inform and educate people as most of the island's population is concentrated in the coastal regions. Gov. Fortuño recently announced a nearly $2 million investment to improve the emergency alert system. A Website, it's called "el día menos pensado" which literally translates into "the day least thought of," has also been created to help create more public awareness of the imminent threats of natural disasters. If this past Wednesday's tsunami drill is any indication, it shows that local emergency authorities have their work cut out for them.

(Photo Credit: The image above was obtained from Caribbean Business)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Other Cables

Most of you may have heard of Wikileaks, the Website which has published troves of classified U.S State Department diplomatic cables. It has released documents dealing with countries (and U.S territories) from around the world, including Puerto Rico. The local papers didn't really cover much of what was said about the island, perhaps because it wasn't newsworthy. What was published mostly dealt with the status issue. According to the documents leaked by Wikileaks however, there was also talk of having U.S territories that receive U.S federal funding pay federal income taxes. If this were to become reality, it would certainly provoke massive demonstrations and mayhem. Given the crisis already taking place at the University of Puerto Rico, and the island's weak economy (it has been in recession for the past five years and 2011 GDP growth forecasts look bleak), it would lead to an explosive situation.

What Wikileaks published about the island was nothing scandalous, and nothing surprising. I can't help but wonder what (if any) those other classified documents would contain. So, I'll just put in my own two cents about what these possible cables might say. After all, for such a tiny island, Puerto Rico does generate quite a bit of news (mostly ignored by the U.S mainstream media though). Let me begin with corruption. This past Monday, Hector Martínez, a senate politician, was found guilty of taking bribes from a businessman and was indicted by a U.S federal court. Mr. Martinez joins a long list of cronies, from small town mayors to a former Department of Education secretary who was accused of stealing millions in federal funds. Corruption is a serious issue on the island and the most effective weapon to fight against it has been the presence of federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI.

On the topic of corruption, let's now move on to the local criminal justice system. It has been exactly a year since the mysterious death of Lorenzo González, who was 8 years old when he was murdered. No charges have been filed. However, the local Justice Department has stated that the mother, Ana Cacho, is the principal suspect. As with most crimes perpetrated on the island, it looks as though local law enforcement officials will once again let this case fall through the cracks. One of the most egregious examples is the so called "masacre de Pájaros," where 12 individuals were accused of murdering three people. Although some were indicted by a jury on conspiracy charges, the judge decided to absolve all of the accused. In a strange turn of events, one of the defendants' lawyers was allegedly seen celebrating with the judge at a nearby restaurant afterwards. In the end, some of the accused were arrested by DEA agents and are now sitting in a federal prison.

Corruption and the criminal justice system on the island are not the only areas in which the U.S federal government is closely monitoring. The U.S Department of Education has also been keeping close tabs on the island's public schools, as a majority of them (86% to be exact) have not met the testing requirements set forth by the "No Child Left Behind" policy. In terms of higher level education, it has been nearly a year since the student strikes at the University of Puerto Rico began and there is no end in sight. In fact, the strike has taken a turn for the worse. The chancellor of the Rio Piedras campus was violently attacked this week while emerging from a meeting at the university.

Violence is a matter of utmost concern in Puerto Rico. Most murders are drug-related but robberies and other types of crimes are on the rise, especially since the economy continues to stagnate. According to the latest findings in the 2010 census, there was a 2.2% population decline on the island in the past 10 years. This is mainly attributed to the migration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland in search for jobs, and not a decreasing birth rate, especially for some of the most well-educated. If the economic and social conditions continue as they are, and as the U.S economy improves, there will be a further contraction of the island's population. In the political front, the two main parties seem to be mired in perpetual bickering, both internal as well as against one another. These are tough times for Puerto Rico, and the future looks grim, but without the presence, aid and oversight of the U.S federal government, things would be in much dire shape.

In conclusion, it's unlikely that the island truly wants to become a sovereign nation, given the significant amount of federal funding it receives. The chances of Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state don't look very promising either, given both the resistance to this idea on the island and in Washington DC. The majority on the island seem complacent with the commonwealth status though. However, there's another possibility which should be taken into consideration. Given the increasing national debt and its decreasing stature as a world economic superpower, perhaps the time has come for the U.S to free itself of Puerto Rico.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Bust a Move!

A big city girl at heart, one of the things which I miss most about living in Manhattan is walking. In my erstwhile life as a New Yorker, and like most Manhattanites, I would very often venture into different neighborhoods on foot. Living in Puerto Rico, Plaza Las Américas (the mall) and Old San Juan are pretty much the only places in which I get to take my leisure strolls. Ever since a labrador retriever mix puppy entered into my life though, I have started to take more walks around my neighborhood. Although there are many dogs around where I live, I don't often see people take their canine out for some exercise. In the parking lot at the mall, cars would wait to take my spot even though there are spaces just 20 feet or so away. It's a tragic fact, but many people on the island abhor the idea of walking!

Condado and Ocean Park are perhaps the only two areas where I often see people run and take their dogs out for walks. In a place where year-round temperatures rarely dip below 70 degrees Farenheit, you would think that people would be active and lead less sedentary lives. However, the obesity rate in Puerto Rico is estimated to be 42%. Diabetes is said to be one of the leading causes of death on the island. Particularly worrisome is the 32% juvenile obesity rate, which is nearly double that of the mainland's. To confront this problem, an obvious solution is to promote and encourage people to adopt healthier lifestyles. Urban planning (or lack thereof) in most of the island's heavily populated areas have been less than adequate though. Puerto Rico lacks the large, public open spaces characteristic of cities like Chicago's beautiful Millenium Park. San Juan's Mayor, Jorge Santini, is hoping to change this though. He is proposing to make his city more pedestrian (as well as tourist) friendly.

Dubbing it, "The Walkable City Plan," Santini is aiming to convert parts of Old San Juan into car-free zones, including the construction of a light rail line. The project would not be completed until 2030 and is expected to cost taxpayers at least $1.5 billion dollars. To help garner support for this initiative, Santini is hosting an event in Old San Juan this Sunday to encourage people to put on their walking shoes. Bikes and skateboards are also welcomed at the Walkable City ("¡Puerto Rico Muévete!" Translation: "Puerto Rico Move Yourself!" ) event. It is certainly no easy feat to change the mindset of people, especially when it comes to their lifestyle. Just like the U.S, Puerto Rico is a car-driven culture. However, if given more choices and alternatives to the automobile, people will be more conscientious and choose a healthier way of life.

(The image above was obtained from