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Fear and Loathing in the Island that Doesn't Exist

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I just came back from the Island that doesn't exist. Almost 3 years had passed since the last time I was there and, apparently, it grew in size. It was always believed its territorial extension was of 100 by 35 miles, but new metrics reveal it is actually a little bigger than that. Which goes contrary to logic as islands usually erode into the sea and, in the case of a previous miscalculation, time would tend to auto correct the number. Anyways, the truth is it doesn't surprise me at all that logic doesn't apply to her.

The Island that doesn't exist has a physical presence on Earth. It also has people and a national idiosyncrasy, yet it is not a country, but a non-incorporated territory of the United States of America. I visit on occasion to see family and the friends I've made at the cobbled stoned streets of its Old City in the past decades. I wasn't born there but strong ties unite us and I love her.
From above she is one beautiful island, sparkled by even more enchanting satellite islands. She is voluptuous in nature, musical and tropical, with whimsical starry nights and waters that spark with flickering lights on moon nights. She is sunny, peaceful, fertile and magical. Yet she is also violent, chaotic, artificial and broken. Contradiction, paradox and relativity are ubiquitous to her.

Nothing is black or white. There are millions of colors and many shades of grey. But in general terms the place is somehow affected by polarizing extremes. For example, black people often define themselves as whites. At the same time whites from there are often defined as colored people in the US and abroad (racism is that absurd!). Its society is consumerist to nauseating levels, however it doesn't even produce its own basic foods. Most people there think agriculture is something denigrating, as if a food's more natural environment was a can. The situation is so fragile, that if external supply would cease, the alimentary crisis would be devastating in a matter of weeks. Poor people often act like they are rich. And the upper class shows off a very rare brand of pride that stems from not owning their country, like it is some kind of great idea. Educated people are often very ignorant of their own culture and history. But at the same time simple people possess a tightly knitted thread of intelligence that goes from one generation to the next and weaves the fabric of an undeniable insular identity.

In 1995 I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to study New Journalism with Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Colombia and, while discussing his Magic Realism, I told him: "You should go to Puerto Rico, Maestro". To which he replied that he never would, because he knew the Island would surpass it and therefore, could alter the foundation of his craft. It was then when I decided not to try to understand the Island and I started accepting her for who she is: literally "something else". So every time I visit I expect anything. Through the years I have come to terms with the surrealism of the place and I have learned to take it as it comes, with an open mind, as a never-ending intellectual challenge.

This time our plane landed at night. It was close to Christmas so I knew, or I believed I knew, I would find the place in a festive mode because, no matter what, the islanders always party like it is the end of the world. Their characteristic happiness is specially true during the holidays, which are legendary because they start in November and last until mid January with "plena" music, an arts festival and heavy drinking on the streets of the Old City. I also expected economic depression because I've been warned about the scars the global crisis is inflicting to the Island.
But to my surprise the place was literally dark, not to say they were not partying and celebrating, but something was strangely odd. As our car left the airport I noticed it immediately so I asked our driver why the street lighting was off on the main roads, intersections and expressways of the metropolitan area. The answer was: "Junkies steal the copper wires of the light posts". Miles and miles of it? That is humanly impossible! Besides, those cables hang very high up in the air!, I insisted. "Yup", she replied. Since I have learned to accept things as they come at the Island, I remained silent for the rest of the trip. A dark passage to the vicinity of Dorado, mecca of tourism, on a pitch black road only lightened up on exceptional points.

In the following days I found the islanders collectively dealing with a severe case of bad trip. Let me explain: The Island has been high on drugs for a long time now, half a century at least, but in the past decade the situation had escalated exponentially and the economic crisis had only worsened the situation.

On Christmas Day a shooting left a cadaver on the parking lot of a major shopping center, full of last minute shoppers, but the news surprised no one. Car to car shootings and executions in the middle of the day on the expressways and virtually anywhere have become the norm. Drug use, traffic, dealing and money laundering are out of control. Corruption is evident, everyone knows that many politicians are rotten apples but they get elected anyways.

After an extensive campaign to try to dissuade people who shoot bullets to the air at midnight on New Year's, a chilling video surfaced on FaceBook the next day. A group of young people went to the balcony of their apartment to film the fireworks, instead they ended up putting together a mind blowing video piece. You would expect people who shoot at midnight on New Years Eve would pull out their guns and shoot a couple, maybe a dozen shots, right? Well, not exactly. This people ended up crawling for protection inside their apartment while recording what sounded like active combat in a war zone, with hundreds and hundreds of bullets fired by different types of machine guns and that was only one case. The island is armed and extremely volatile nowadays.

The situation is not comparable to Mexico, Colombia or the mainland. Puerto Rico is really small and people live very close one to another, so everything seems and feels like it happens right on your backyard. Their historical background is very particular too. The island was the target of unmentionable experiments in the past century by the US government. Because of that, the scars of colonialism by two subsequent imperial rulers, and because its people have fought every US war, the prevailing psychological scars are deep and big. So, for starters, the Island is highly medicated.

On top of that the system has created generations of people who live on welfare, do not work and are very poorly educated. Unemployment is high. Violence against women is news everyday. The police force is widely corrupt. Today, there are homeless junkies in every town. They are particularly notable because the local dealers cut heroin with horse anesthetics and the result is a drug that rotten the bodies of heavy users. They look like zombies, or the cast of Michael Jackson's Thriller video. So in general terms the society is widely unhealthy, uneducated and broken.

On the other hand, the economy is on the ropes. It is only natural as it is entirely dependent, by law, of the US. When things are bad here, they are even worse there. I suspect the streets are in the dark mostly because the government is cutting energy costs that way, but I was unable to confirm it. For decades money laundering and the underground economy were somehow tolerated, as the upper classes have always opted for enriching their coffers at every opportunity, taking advantage of the colonial loop holes and disregarding long time risks. But the breaking point is too evident now to ignore and for the first time it is affecting everybody: poor and rich, white or black, men and women, old but specially the young ones.

There's many places around the world that suffer from high levels of drug trafficking, substance abuse and addiction problems simply because of their locations. If a country is located on the route between manufacturing meccas and major consumer nations, problems will manifest for sure with trafficking and sales of drugs, violent crime associated with drug sales and high levels of drug consumption. Puerto Rico is a particularly alluring target for drug traffickers. If the South American cartels can get their drugs through the Caribbean and onto the island, the cargo can be moved into the U.S. without customs interference.

Puerto Rico is by culture part of Latin America and by politics part of the US. But at the same time the Island is not a Latin American country neither a State of the Union. That is why it is trapped in an impossible situation without real instruments to combat the very particular characteristics of her current situation. This time around the US cannot be the solution, because the US is an integral part of the problem. Applying the war on drugs to Puerto Rico is proving to be like pulling a gun to our own head.

Can this be the catalyst that will force the island that doesn't exist to finally stand on her own feet and to be, all by herself? Would the US invite her to be part of the union treating Puerto Ricans as equals, with full rights, protecting its citizens and not treating them as a second class as they do now? I might be wrong but I don't think so. I believe that integration and denial of her own self wouldn't be a solution but I respect those who think the opposite. After all those who migrated to the mainland and their descendants have all the right to be and to call themselves Americans if they want to, and in fact they have no other choice. There are many grey areas in regards to the citizenship and no easy answers. Only Puerto Ricans can decide their fate. But to solve the pressing emergency on the Island they will have to stand up, work hard, be united, combat ignorance, learn to love their land and respect it, come together as a people and sit -as equals- to negotiate or just declare a dignified solution on their own. Or they will forever suffer the psychological and physical condemnation of living as expatriates in their own land, eternally foreign to their own self.