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The economist says Puerto Rico needs a radical refocusing of the way we act with respect to the collective challenges we are facing.

The past months have been intense and complex for Puerto Rico. As the last year of the second decade of the 21st century began, we hoped to begin rebuilding the island.

However, without properly closing the holiday season, earthquakes shortened our celebrations and placed us in a state of alert.

Months later, on March 15, COVID-19 arrived to our shores and changed our lives forever. Since then, we have lived with a new invisible enemy that competes with other great evils, such as the economic depression, the fiscal crisis, bankruptcy and poor government management. Recently we were affected by Tropical Storm Isaias. It appears that we have fallen to a “macacoa,” as they say, which overwhelms us all.

Some friends say that we have fallen out of favor with fate and that our bad luck as a people is decided.

Personally, I am reluctant to think pessimistically and hand over my personal destiny and that of the island, to something as subjective as “bad luck.” I think we should start thinking big and start a profound change in the way we act and the way we think about Puerto Rico. Countries and human beings have the opportunity to design their future if, in effect, they set goals and projects that guide them to success.

The Economic Takeoff: 1950 to 2000

When we examine the history of Puerto Rico in the 20th century, between 1900 and 1950, the situation was not very good. Poverty, economic stagnation and social conflicts defined the island at that historical moment.

Despite those challenges, Puerto Rican society was able to evolve and begin to build projects and institutions that made the economy and society take off under the tutelage and support of the U.S. government.

The spaces of self-government from 1952 and the industrial experiment thereafter under Operation Bootstrap provided the experience that, under ideal conditions, Puerto Rico is capable of achieving great things.

Between 1950 and 2000, we went from underdevelopment to an accelerated economic growth that was unprecedented in any economy in the region. It was the time of Section 936 and of major investments in infrastructure and biotechnology. Our banks were making their way on Wall Street and their shares were among the most valued. We created an international banking center and a global insurance center.

These were times when we projected ourselves as a society capable of thinking big, when we were economic leaders in the region, and we aspired to host the Olympic Games (2004). Sports-wise, culturally and economically, it was a Puerto Rico that achieved great things and there was a hunger and a desire to continue growing in all areas.

Culturally, pavilions, museums, cultural festivals were built, and we consolidated the Casals Festival as an important international event. And we also managed to place artists worldwide, including artists in Hollywood. In sports, we managed to place our baseball and basketball teams, respectively, among the best in the world. We were able to think and execute great projects that marked a great era.

The Aborted Leap Into the New Century

Between 1990 and 2000, we built a large infrastructure to prepare ourselves for a second leap as a society towards the new century and millennium. We invested over $10 billion in highways, coliseums, convention centers, and more.

But with the arrival of the 21st century, we seemed to lose inspiration and the desire to think big.

The political and governmental fracture of shared government (2005 - 2008) and the emergence of fiscal deficits led us to an economic crisis that continues today. Contrary to the previous century, when there was a time when the political class had the vocation to agree to solve the most fundamental problems of the country, in the 21st century, political cannibalism emerged as a dangerous practice that has weakened the democratic experiment that began in 1952.

The government’s bankruptcy and the eventual government syndication has consolidated a state of conformity and mediocrity in public management, which undermines the real possibilities of emerging from the current crisis, aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Collective Responsibility Towards Puerto Rico’s Problems

Given the accumulation of challenges and problems, it is urgent that all sectors of Puerto Rican society resume the ability to think big again. From political and business leadership to every ordinary citizen, a radical refocusing of the way we act with respect to the collective challenges we have as a people is urgent.

Thinking big is making ourselves available to contribute the best of us in building the solutions that Puerto Rico requires. It is to visualize how each one of us becomes the leader of the changes that the current state of affairs requires.

Thinking big is putting Puerto Rico first, above all other considerations. Thinking big is replacing federal aid with work and entrepreneurial creativity.

Thinking big is bringing about radical changes from the bottom up, from our communities and our companies to the ideas that we can promote in public forums and social networks to get the island out of the current impasse.

Thinking big is turning government back into an instrument of development and not an end in itself of those who administer it and of public employees.

Thinking big is breaking with current thinking that fate has brought us to the current state of stagnation and beginning to devise the type of society we aspire to and desire for our children and grandchildren.

Let’s rescue from history the great deeds that our parents and grandparents achieved between the decades of 1940 to 1970, and let’s begin to idealize the Puerto Rico that we want from now on. Each citizen has the obligation to rethink a better Puerto Rico and begin to act in accordance with that vision and with the idea that a better society is still possible.

(1) comment

Dennis Dinzeo

As a native of Connecticut having lived in Puerto Rico on and off for 45 years it has become increasingly clear that Puerto Rico will not realize its potential until it rejects Clientelism and adopts Meritocracy in its stead. Clientelism is a social order whereby people do each other favors, large and small, usually at the expense of the majority of stakeholders and without regard to the long-term effects. It dates to the time of Julius Caesar and is obviously not confined to Puerto Rico. One manifestation is that under-qualified people assume critical positions in government and industry as payback for favors-rendered rather than their ability to perform the tasks at hand. The result is chaos. Back in 1980 I walked into the Acueductos office here in Aguadilla with resume and Mechanical Engineering degree in hand, naively thinking I could land a job with the utility. Such a thing is commonplace in Connecticut so why not in Puerto Rico? The receptionist looked at me as if I had just emerged from an alien spacecraft. She politely accepted the resume but I'm sure it went straight to the trash. In Puerto Rico its not what you know but who you know. We all suffer as a result.

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