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Puerto Rico and Journalistic Irresponsibility: Another Obstacle to Recovery

Photo courtesy of khn.org (Xavier Garcia/Bloomberg via Getty Images) belatina, latinx
Photo courtesy of khn.org (Xavier Garcia/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal touted Puerto Rico as a “terrific Covid-era escape,” just when the island saw explosive growth in Covid infections and hordes of American tourists continued to take advantage of dirt-cheap airfares, treat the archipelago as a disposable playground while refusing to wear masks and observe social distancing. 

In toe-curling language, Robert P. Waltzer wrote about returning to the island 26 years after living there (he worked as a journalist at the now-defunct English language newspaper The San Juan Star — but he is no Hunter Thompson) and his musings painted an archipelago that bears nothing to reality. Rather, the copy reeked of propaganda like that put out by the Tourism Ministry of the pro-statehood administration of Pedro Pierluisi.  

One doesn’t need to go any further than the lead: 

“On a recent visit to a beachfront cultural center in Loíza, a Puerto Rican town with the island’s largest Black community, I heard Afro-Puerto Rican folkloric music blasting from a car stereo. A young man danced, another carved a ceremonial mask from a coconut, and one more filled my glass with his homemade sugar-cane liquor flavored with guava fruit.” Oh, Lord. 

Waltzer went on to write that “after dark in Old San Juan, young revelers spilled out of salsa-music-filled bars onto the cobblestoned streets as in the old days.” What?

Those “young revelers” that he seems to be referring to were mostly American tourists, flat-out drunk, fighting each other in the streets, telling Puerto Ricans to speak English, and accosting them when asked to wear a mask while out in public. 

Boricuas have ample reason for concern. In early April, the island went from averaging about 200 new cases a day to about 800, according to a New York Times database. More than 7,100 cases were identified at the start of this month which is a record; in a two-week period in April, cases grew by 151 percent. The positivity rate reached about 14 percent, according to the Puerto Rico Department of Health.

The CDC has warned tourists not to travel to the island. Yet, still, they come, egged on no doubt by articles like Waltzers and cheap airfares. 

He ended his piece describing a place that lives in the mind of colonial writers, writing that drives a stake in the sand and claims the place as his own, like Thompson, who lived and worked for a time in Puerto Rico (and in the same newspaper as Waltzer,) wrote in The Rum Diaries.

“On my last day, I swam at Cerro Gordo beach outside San Juan and then settled in at a waterfront bar, gazing at the setting sun. As I drank a cold Medalla beer and listened to the local gossip with a Juan Luis Guerra merengue song in the background, two men on horseback meandered by,” Waltzer wrote. “In this blissful moment, it struck me that in essential ways, Puerto Rico hasn’t really changed.” Oh, but it has. This is Puerto Rico seen through the eyes of an entitled American; it is not the Puerto Rico that actually exists.

Puerto Ricans have experienced a litany of obstacles and tragedies over the past few years — a recession, earthquakes, two hurricanes that caused the death of more than 3,000 people, a pandemic, an insurmountable debt, and an imposed Fiscal Control Board, and Donald Trump, who at one point talked about swapping the island for Greenland.

Add to this Covid and American tourists who care not an iota for the island and its people and you arrive at the complete picture.

After the Puerto Rican journalist Tanzina Vega posted a thread on Twitter, the Boricua Twittersphere lit up, and it was furious. Irresponsible, entitled, colonial, was the nicest of the responses from Puerto Ricans. 

His traveling companion, Larry Luxner, who is also a journalist, answered the Twitter backlash with a post he later deleted and one that cemented how tone-deaf both these “journalists” actually are. 

“How exactly are two vaccinated journalists behaving responsibly and writing about their five days in Puerto Rico ‘twisting the knife’ or spreading COVID or guilty of colonial blindness”? You people are making an awful lot of stupid assumptions.”

And what did the WSJ do? It posted a correction and an amplification to this I-went-on-holiday-in-hell-and-loved-it piece that merely stated: 

“The pandemic curfew in Puerto Rico is 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the curfew is 12 p.m. to 5 a.m. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises Americans to avoid traveling to Puerto Rico because of a “very high” level of Covid-19 on the island. An earlier version of this article omitted the CDC warning.”

An earlier version of this article omitted the CDC warning – now that is like saying we forgot to tell you the war is on. 

One has to wonder why an article like this was published in the first place. And why when we asked that it be taken down it was merely cleaned-up a bit, and tough luck for us Puerto Ricans. 

The title now reads: Why Puerto Rico is a Tempting Covid Getaway. It’s all in the rum drinks and the pretty natives, I guess. Well, we natives are getting restless. As Vega said in one of her tweets: “How about selling The Hamptons as your ‘terrific Covid-era escape?