The "CNN Effect" In San Juan

by John Marino

April 4, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOThe stock market is down, local retail and restaurant workers are feeling pinched because people are at home, closely watching cable news, and there's an overall general malaise, regardless of whether or not one supports the war, that there is one going on.

It could be anywhere, U.S.A., but I'm talking about San Juan, Puerto Rico, which is looking very much like a part of the United States these days.

Sure there's the call from some fringe political figures for local soldiers to refuse orders for deployment, and the Puerto Rican Independence Party push for President Bush to call home island soldiers because they are needed in the local fight against crime and in the local healthcare system. But displays of Puerto Rican nationalism have been counterbalanced by unabashed demonstrations of United States patriotism - and a noticeable up-tick in the public waving of Old Glory.

The "CNN effect," featured in national news stories, is also a trend locally. People seem to be staying home more, partially consumed by events half a world away. Part of it is the globalization of American culture. With the global reach of 24/7 news channels, people all over the world are watching the war on television. But it also brings home Puerto Rico's "special" relationship with the United States. Many people are glued to their tubes not because of the war per se, but because their cousin, brother, husband or father is "over there."

An Orocovis-born, Pennsylvania-raised Special Forces officer, Sgt. Orlando Morales, killed in Afghanistan last week was mourned here as a native son. Then the Pentagon announced Tuesday that a Puerto Rican from New York, Marine Cpl. Robert Marcus Rodríguez, was one of four Marines killed last week when their tank plunged off a bridge into the Euphrates River. While Morales was the first Puerto Rican soldier killed in the war on terrorism, Rodríguez became the first Puerto Rican military casualty of the Iraq war.

In a speech on the House floor, Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá said that the United States and Puerto Rico "lost true patriots in both these brave men."

The island is bracing for more bad news. The local National Guard and Army Reserve have undergone the largest deployment in island history to support the war in Iraq. Hundreds have already been deployed, and hundreds more are awaiting their marching orders.

The tourism season has been nipped in the bud early this year because of the war, and maybe the new mysterious virus SARS. In any event, it doesn't feel like a good time to be flying or floating in the middle of the Caribbean on a cruise ship. Other than that, the "colony" appears like a particularly unlikely U.S. terrorism target and life goes on.

Foreign Justice

While the war has brought home the "sacrifice" inherent in Puerto Rico’s political relationship with the United States, other news this week has highlighted its benefits.

From Mayaguez to Fajardo, residents were riveted to the start of the drug trafficking trial TV personality Laura Hernández, her husband Marcos Irizarry and six other locals in the Dominican Republic. Photos of her day in court knocked the images of the Iraq war off the front pages of most island newspapers for the first time since the hostilities began.

Lawyers for the defendants, who have been locked up since Labor Day weekend in horrid Dominican jails, argued that the investigation leading to the arrests was filled with "crass irregularities" and "violations to the constitution."

It was actually a good day for the defense. Much of the evidence gathered against the group was thrown out because a prosecutor from an eastern province took statements from the group in Santo Domingo. The defense, on appeal, is also trying to throw out tape-recorded telephone conversations of group members that now form the basis of the case.

But the trial, held in a completely different system of justice than in Puerto Rico, retained the air of a medieval court. The prosecutor chastised the lead defense attorney, arguing that the case was not about the constitution but about a gang of international drug traffickers. Curiously, the Dominican drug lords the Puerto Ricans were allegedly buying from have never been identified or arrested. The trial was put on hold until next month while the defense gets to review the recordings, a request that has not been met even though the defendants have been incarcerated for months now.

In Puerto Rico, if you don’t go to trial in six months for the crime in which you are arrested, you are released on bail until your day in court. But in the Dominican Republic, you are thrown in jail until you can prove your innocence.

No one here is screaming that the eight Puerto Rican prisoners are innocent, but to a Puerto Rican there is the view that they have suffered enough for any crimes they might have committed. That fact was brought home by a riveting report by journalist Laura Albertelli, who managed to get into the prison housing Irizarry and the other male Puerto Rican prisoners. Their toilet is a hole in the ground with a broken plastic bucket on top and they have paid $400 to get a 5-foot wide shack to sleep rather than the filthy cement floor. They also have to pay dearly for water to drink or to wash. There is no healthcare to speak of. The Puerto Ricans have all come down with salmonella and incurable skin rashes. The dead, Albertelli quotes prisoners as saying, are dragged out on the same carts used to bring the food in.

The Puerto Rico Constitution is a beautiful document, and the influence of the U.S. Constitution on it is evident. The federal justice system has also played a trail-blazing role here, bringing high judicial standards, and U.S. prosecutors have led the fight against local public corruption.

Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court took oral arguments in a case that will decide the constitutionality of a Texas anti-sodomy law shortly, a move that could overturn a similar commonwealth law. In doing so, the high court has shown itself willing to venture where local lawmakers have refused to tread. Last year, the commonwealth Supreme Court also declined to address the constitutionality of the Puerto Rico despite a challenge to it by civil rights groups. That’s another example of the federal government taking a leading role in meting out justice in Puerto Rico.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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