This week, in my searches for U.S. media coverage of Puerto Rico, I was delighted to see #PuertoRico trending on various social media platforms. The problem for me, however, is that almost all the major media and social media response was centered on two Puerto Ricans and U.S. passport stories.
The first story concerns a Puerto Rican man who was denied his pre-booked rental car from Hertz because he had a Puerto Rican driver’s license for ID and not a passport. Apparently, the Hertz employee thought the man wasn’t a U.S. citizen. Hertz has issued an apology. The second story is that a Sprint Airlines employee refused to allow a Puerto Rican family to board a flight to Puerto Rico because their 2-year-old did not have a passport. The story has garnered some non-U.S. coverage. The airline has also apologized.
This almost-exclusive focus was taking place—despite there being so much more recent news about Puerto Rico. There was a U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling two weeks ago against the island’s progressive investigative journalists seeking records from the financial oversight board that deal with Puerto Rico’s questionable finances. Facing another hurricane season, Puerto Rico’s power grid issues are far from being resolved. Vieques has not had a working hospital since 2017. The Puerto Rico Status Bill in Congress was reintroduced to the House. Gentrification and displacement on the island continues, with tax breaks for wealthy mainland buyers in effect. There are also major climate change and environmental issues on the island to confront.
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I suppose I should be elated to see any coverage of Puerto Rico at all, but the sympathetic “outrage” that followed for the Puerto Ricans denied a car rental or an airline flight failed to speak pointedly to much larger issues of the island’s status as a colony. (Yes, I know the U.S. legal term of “territory” is usually used.)
Puerto Ricans' status as second-class citizens, unequal funding for Medicaid, the impact of the Jones Act (which gave Puerto Ricans U. S. citizenship), and the un-elected Junta—the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico that essentially rules the island—are all key issues, but aren’t going to generate clicks. Plus, there is the complete failure of the mainland educational system to include Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican history in school curricula, which, given right-wing Republican efforts to “erase woke,” is bound to get worse.
On Twitter, CBS journalist David Begnaud covered both stories about Hertz and Spirit Airlines in a series of posts, which got thousands of views.
While wading through the social media outpouring of “Puerto Ricans are Americans, too” responses to the passport stories, I have to note that most Puerto Ricans I’ve met over the years, both on the island and in the diaspora, self-identify as “Puerto Rican” and not “American,” regardless of their citizenship, territorial/colonial status, or political party affiliation.
I admit my reaction to the passport story blitz was in line with this response from New York Puerto Rican journalist and filmmaker, Andrew Padilla:
Specialized media outlets like SCOTUSblog and Jurist did cover the Supreme Court decision against the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (Center for Investigative Journalism). But their coverage, to be honest, was not easily understandable by the average layperson, myself included. I saw only one very short Associated Press story:
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court ruled Thursday against an organization of Puerto Rican journalists in its quest for documents from the financial oversight board created to deal with the island territory’s bankruptcy.
The justices by an 8-1 vote reversed an appeals court ruling in favor of the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, which has reported extensively on Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis and debt restructuring.
In 2016, Congress passed a law that created the control board that continues to oversee Puerto Rico’s finances. The reporters’ group is seeking an array of documents, including communications between the board’s members and U.S. and Puerto Rican officials. The board contends it is a part of the government of Puerto Rico and enjoys the same shield from federal lawsuits as the government.
Here’s the English language response to SCOTUS from the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo:
“The Board refuses to disclose the public documents requested and the U.S. Supreme Court today allows this. It is a weak judicial ruling, because its main and crucial argument is to assume that the Board has immunity, without deciding or going into the merits of whether it really has that protection. The consequences of this Supreme Court decision are perverse for the people of Puerto Rico,” said Carla Minet, executive director of the CPI.
SCOTUS’s decision effectively gives the Board the power not to comply with the fundamental right that Puerto Rico citizens have to know what is happening in their government. This is unprecedented even for the government of the United States. This decision only applies to the Board and not to the Government of Puerto Rico or any of its instrumentalities, which continue to be subject to the constitutional right of access to information recognized by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court more than 40 years ago. [...]
“We strongly reject the decision issued by the U.S. Supreme Court that tramples on the rights of Puerto Ricans. We’re facing yet another chapter of the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, this time, hindering government transparency and accountability in Puerto Rico as a result,” Minet added.
Latino Justice: Puerto Rican Legal Defense & Education Fund, the pan-Latino civil rights organization founded in 1972, responded with a press release.
Journalist Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco also wrote about for decision for Latino Rebels:
The FOMBPR, known by Puerto Ricans as “La Junta,” was created by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) in 2016 to deal with the archipelago’s more than $70 billion debt. The board has repeatedly come under fire due to conflicts of interest between board members and private businesses, along with the crippling austerity measures it has passed to satisfy Puerto Rico’s creditors. [...]
Clarence Thomas was the only dissenting opinion. Notably, Sonia Sotomayor, who is Puerto Rican herself, joined the majority.
Journalist and Editor Alberto Medina posted a Twitter thread in response to the SCOTUS ruling, which you can read here.
Unfortunately, mainstream U.S. media is unlikely to do much in-depth coverage of the critical issues facing Puerto Rico in the near—or far—future. I’ll continue to post alternative sources here for readers who do have an interest.
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