My last day of vacation brought me back to Old San Juan. Aaron had to fly so I went with two other pilots. The plan was to visit both of the old Spanish forts and take in as much of the historic old city as possible. We did a lot of walking, but I now have a great appreciation for Old San Juan. It is beautiful and offers a lot. I could have spent more time there (I suppose I say that about most places I visit), but I’m glad that I got to see as much as I did.
Puerto Rico was known as the key to the Caribbean in colonial times. The trade winds brought vessels from Europe right to Puerto Rico, and San Juan was the preeminent city, with a deep, easy to protect harbor. From San Juan the Spanish were able to control the Caribbean, exclude other European powers from trading in the Caribbean Sea, and provide safe harbor to all Spanish treasure galleons filled with gold and silver from all over the New World. Because of this strategic location they fortified the hell out of San Juan. The city was surrounded by a strong wall, and at the mouth of the harbor stood El Morro fort, an impressive naval fort. At the other end of the city, overlooking the neck of the peninsula stood San Cristóbal fort, guarding the land access to San Juan. San Juan was just screaming at the pirates, English, French, and Dutch “Come at me bro! Come at me!”
The forts are impressive. The walls are 15 to 20 feet thick and very tall. You can just imagine all the shiny cannons sticking out of the turrets, pointing right at your ship. I would have been horrified to have been a soldier or sailor who was ordered to attack San Juan. The Spanish fortifications were likely a deterrent to many European powers hatching attacks upon the Spanish Americas.
The defenses were tested five times – the English twice, the Dutch, the British (by 1797 the United Kingdom had been formed), and last in 1898 by the United States of America. The English, British, and Dutch all had varying degrees of success attacking San Juan and laying siege to its defenses, but troop attrition by casualties and disease forced all attackers to abandon the island until the successful United States invasion in 1898. Ever since then Puerto Rico has been a territory of the United States (The Philippines and Cuba, also ceded to the United States at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, have since been granted independence).
I couldn’t go a whole vacation without writing up some social commentary. You know you love it. So Puerto Rico: statehood, independence, or the status quo?
The United States took over Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. Puerto Rico is a nation, not a country. Politically it is part of the United States (we refer to it as a Commonwealth), and Puerto Ricans are American citizens, but it has a fair degree of autonomy over its internal affairs. As a nation, Puerto Rico competes independently in sporting events such as the Olympics and World Series of Baseball.
In the 2012 election a plurality, although not a majority of voters, indicated a preference for statehood. However, it seems to have stalled in Congress. Republicans are likely to be opposed to Puerto Rican statehood, because the Congresspeople (or person) and Senators would probably caucus with the Democrats (the same goes for Washington, DC, which is the single most democratic “state” in America). The most likely next step for Puerto Rico is to revisit the topic in the 2016 gubernatorial election (the chief political executive of Puerto Rico is an elected governor) and then move forward.
I believe that many would agree that the status quo is not ideal. Puerto Rico is bankrupt. The economy has not been doing well, so the government took on too much debt. Obama and Congress and not trying to come up with a solution to the $72 billion problem. I know that the NY Times is only one opinion of many, but a recent op-ed piece opened my eyes to some laws in the United States which are prejudicial to the Puerto Rican economy. These laws may be contributing to the Puerto Rican fiscal problem. However, the article really opened my eyes to the breadth of the problem. Puerto Ricans are more than 50% poorer than the poorest American state, Mississippi, and the cost of living is higher.
One of the alternative options to statehood is independence. I don’t believe that many Puerto Ricans support this option anymore, but over the last century there have been numerous movements, some which were even violent. Forgotten by history is the 1954 independence minded attack on a session of Congress, leaving bullets in five different Congressmen. The four attackers were all given lengthy prison sentences, but they were pardoned by Jimmy Carter in 1978 and 1979. There was also a nationalist terrorist organization (I use the term terrorism with reservation here – I’ve written before about the subjectivity of the term), the FALN, which made over 100 bombings in its history and did cause loss of life. A member of the organization, Oscar López Rivera, remains in prison, now an old man, and is a divisive figure here in Puerto Rico. Some consider him the Nelson Mandela of Puerto Rico and call for his release, while many people consider him a terrorist who should serve his prison term in full. The figure of Oscar López Rivera is prominent here on the island. There was a big life-sized sticker of him outside of the AirBnB I stayed at, and I saw life size figures of him in a few other places around the island. Yesterday in Caguas, they were having a 36-hour poetry reading calling for his release.
I think it is very interesting that some Puerto Ricans call him the Nelson Mandela of the island. Forgotten in the Nelson Mandela saga is why he was imprisoned. Mandela was involved in a violent liberation movement. I believe his participation was reluctant, but he participated, was captured, and imprisoned nonetheless for violence. I’ve written about my thoughts on violence before, and I don’t think I agree with the use of violence to fight oppression. Of course, the philosophical basis of any violent revolution is that oppression justifies violence when other options are exhausted, but I tend to think that the suffering of oppression may not be as bad as the suffering brought on by violence. I know, that is a strong statement to make, especially for an upper-middle class White American. I’d like to educate myself more on these philosophies, but I don’t think that anyone would disagree with me that human suffering is bad and any alternatives to violence are superior to violence itself. I’m very glad about the outcome for Mandela and South Africa, but I can’t say that I support clemency for this Puerto Rican man.
Some other nice photos from Old San Juan:
Other posts from my vacation trip to NY for Thanksgiving and Puerto Rico:
Home for Thanksgiving (I’m still waiting on those pictures from my Uncle)
Puerto Rico: Day One
Puerto Rico: Day Two, Yankees in El Yunque
Puerto Rico: Day Three
Puerto Rico: Day Five
Puerto Rico: Day Six
A lot of people ask me about the Peace Corps vacation policy. Check out an FAQ that I put up last year for the scoop on vacation in the Peace Corps.