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The Cupolog

The northwest passage : Live without dead time

Free Syria Today
Reyhanlı, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2013

Free Syria Today

Reyhanlı, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2013

Interview with Lieutenant of the Free Syrian Army
Reyhanlı, Turkey – A clean-shaven man in a fresh-pressed shirt and spotless dress shoes is waiting outside a hospital for Syrian refugees as I walk out the door. We start talking about the civil war across the border, less than 1 km from were we stood, and he tells me:
"The presence of Islamists groups in our rebel forces could ruin our chance to end this war within the next year. They make up less than one percent of the men fighting against Bashar al-Assad, but all that seems to matter to foreign media is the fact they exist and they are beside us."

The man introduces himself as Ahmad al-Soud, Lieutenant of the Free Syrian Army and Commander of the 13th Division based in Idlib. He was originally an officer in Assad’s army, but switched sides when regime forces bombed Idlib, his hometown, and he witnessed a high number of civilian casualties. I asked him to sit down for an interview and he agreed.
See the full interview on Truthout:
http://www.truth-out.org/speakout/item/17404-interview-with-lieutenant-of-the-free-syrian-army

Interview with Lieutenant of the Free Syrian Army

Reyhanlı, Turkey – A clean-shaven man in a fresh-pressed shirt and spotless dress shoes is waiting outside a hospital for Syrian refugees as I walk out the door. We start talking about the civil war across the border, less than 1 km from were we stood, and he tells me:

"The presence of Islamists groups in our rebel forces could ruin our chance to end this war within the next year. They make up less than one percent of the men fighting against Bashar al-Assad, but all that seems to matter to foreign media is the fact they exist and they are beside us."

The man introduces himself as Ahmad al-Soud, Lieutenant of the Free Syrian Army and Commander of the 13th Division based in Idlib. He was originally an officer in Assad’s army, but switched sides when regime forces bombed Idlib, his hometown, and he witnessed a high number of civilian casualties. I asked him to sit down for an interview and he agreed.

See the full interview on Truthout:

http://www.truth-out.org/speakout/item/17404-interview-with-lieutenant-of-the-free-syrian-army

News Hour in Reyhanlı
The G8 summit came on as we watched the news with Syrian refugees in Reyhanlı. One of them laughed and said, “Look at all those world leaders talking about everything they won’t do in Syria. Thank you very much.”Then images of the protesters in Turkey and Brazil flashed on the screen. Alice and I said the police had been excessively violent. The same Syrian refugee responded: 
"Yeah, okay, we wish our government was throwing tear gas at us. They’re shooting our people in Syria. Tear gas would be nice. Tear gas would be like having a party."
Reyhanlı, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2013

News Hour in Reyhanlı

The G8 summit came on as we watched the news with Syrian refugees in Reyhanlı. One of them laughed and said, “Look at all those world leaders talking about everything they won’t do in Syria. Thank you very much.”

Then images of the protesters in Turkey and Brazil flashed on the screen. Alice and I said the police had been excessively violent. The same Syrian refugee responded:

"Yeah, okay, we wish our government was throwing tear gas at us. They’re shooting our people in Syria. Tear gas would be nice. Tear gas would be like having a party."

Reyhanlı, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2013

New Arrivals from Idlib
Reyhanlı, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2013

New Arrivals from Idlib

Reyhanlı, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2013

The kids are alright
Reyhanlı, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2013

The kids are alright

Reyhanlı, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2013

La Paz Again, Roadblocked Again
We had an important appointment in La Paz so we returned, once again, to the capital city. When we arrived, Ania and I were confronted by multiple roadblocks, once again. This time, the medical students were protesting the government’s efforts to make doctors work at least 8 hours a day.
We walked from El Alto to the city center.
La Paz, Bolivia - © Diego Cupolo 2012

La Paz Again, Roadblocked Again

We had an important appointment in La Paz so we returned, once again, to the capital city. When we arrived, Ania and I were confronted by multiple roadblocks, once again. This time, the medical students were protesting the government’s efforts to make doctors work at least 8 hours a day.

We walked from El Alto to the city center.

La Paz, Bolivia - © Diego Cupolo 2012

South Colombia Rush
We wanted to stop.
We wanted to know Southern Colombia.
We wanted to see areas of coca fumigation and devastated food crops.
We wanted to meet people that lived between - were forced to choose between - paramilitaries and guerrillas.
We wanted to understand the world’s second largest displaced population.
But we couldn’t. Not if we wanted to reach Tierra del Fuego.
So we moved on - to Ecuador - and told ourselves: maybe next time.
On the road, Colombia - © Diego Cupolo 2012

South Colombia Rush

We wanted to stop.

We wanted to know Southern Colombia.

We wanted to see areas of coca fumigation and devastated food crops.

We wanted to meet people that lived between - were forced to choose between - paramilitaries and guerrillas.

We wanted to understand the world’s second largest displaced population.

But we couldn’t. Not if we wanted to reach Tierra del Fuego.

So we moved on - to Ecuador - and told ourselves: maybe next time.

On the road, Colombia - © Diego Cupolo 2012

Los Desplazados
Medellin isn’t necessarily poor, it claims to be Colombia’s most progressive city, but for this reason the poor, the displaced, and the homeless all swarm to Medellin.
The streets are full of families from the south that lost their homes due to ongoing guerrilla warfare and widespread fumigation to eradicate coca plantations. The war forces them to pick sides and the fumigation spoils their soil so most residents just pack up and leave. Some to Ecuador, others to the north.
Colombia has an estimated 4-5 million internal refugees. Second only to Sudan.
And the effects are obvious in cities like Medellin.
Medellin, Colombia - © Diego Cupolo 2012

Los Desplazados

Medellin isn’t necessarily poor, it claims to be Colombia’s most progressive city, but for this reason the poor, the displaced, and the homeless all swarm to Medellin.

The streets are full of families from the south that lost their homes due to ongoing guerrilla warfare and widespread fumigation to eradicate coca plantations. The war forces them to pick sides and the fumigation spoils their soil so most residents just pack up and leave. Some to Ecuador, others to the north.

Colombia has an estimated 4-5 million internal refugees. Second only to Sudan.

And the effects are obvious in cities like Medellin.

Medellin, Colombia - © Diego Cupolo 2012

Friday the 13th Quiebrapata Highway Sounds
A rice salesman gave Ania and I a ride out of San Gil.“I represent the biggest rice company in Colombia,” he said. “Best rice you can buy! Do you want some? I have samples in the trunk.”Of course, we want samples. He took us through the Chicamocha Canyon and left us in a traffic jam outside Girón. At the center of the carbon-smog chaos, we sat down for lunch. Leftover pasta and a bag of carrots.It was delicious.From there, we got a lift from a placid man. A serene, old farmer that resembled a spanish Kevin Spacey. Gentle. Soft. Lonely.“Do you have any fears?” he asked.“The fear of not living life,” I said. “Of not living up to my potential.”“Splendid.”He pulled into a gas station and bought four water bottles.“I don’t normally pick up hitchhikers,” he said. “You’re the first ones. I think my angels and your angels get along and they brought us together for a reason so, here, take this water. I want to help in any way possible.”He dropped us off near a farm in Lebrija. It was almost night by then. Our chances of getting another ride were lowering with the sun. Just when we were about to set up camp for the night, a carpenter picked us up. He was an army veteran. His name was Alberto and he talked about gunfights with the FARC in the north.“They always made their bases on top of mountains, or other hard-to-reach places,” he said. “Usually places that could only be reached by one road so they could easily ambush intruders. It was hard to get in, but, in the end, we usually got in. We had more arms and we had more men.”“Did you take prisoners?” Ania asked.“Of course,” he said. “They were valuable. We would ask them how they got their provisions, where their leaders were, everything.”“Usually, they talked,” he said and paused for a moment to look Ania in the eye.It was a long moment.“But don’t think it was easy. The missions were tricky,” Alberto continued. “The FARC loved to use minas quiebrapatas (leg-breaker mines). Every step we took in the forest was a dangerous one. The mines were homemade, usually with manure and other chemicals, and they weren’t powerful enough to kill you, but they would take your legs.”“Quiebrapatas were mostly used in and around coca fields,” he said. “My friend stepped on one. He was 50 meters in front of me when it blew. Today, he’s in a wheelchair. That could’ve been me.”We passed a street vendor on the side of the road.“Have you tried an arepa de choclo?” Alberto asked.“No, what’s choclo?”“A special corn, you’ll see.”Alberto bought us two arepas de choclo. They were dripping with butter and packed with a brick of cheese. Terrifically amazing and terrifically heavy. Ania couldn’t finish hers so she passed it to me.I made the mistake of eating it.I tried to digest as we passed a gigantic hydroelectric project. Alberto said a private foreign company was building a dam to export electricity. The road we were driving on would be underwater within two years.Around nine o’clock, we arrived in muggy, sweaty Barranca and my stomach was still trying to deal with the brick of cheese. Alberto invited us to stay at his mother’s house, arguing the hotels in town were too expensive for us.“This is a petroleum city,” he said. “The only people that stay in our hotels are engineers that fly in from around the world. They’re all fancy places. Just give my mom a little money and she’d be glad to have you over. Her name’s Esmerelda. She’s quiet a character.”And, just like that, we continued our Friday the 13th lucky streak and walked into the biggest, strangest, most powerful arms in Colombia.
On the road, Colombia - © Diego Cupolo 2012

Friday the 13th Quiebrapata Highway Sounds

A rice salesman gave Ania and I a ride out of San Gil.

“I represent the biggest rice company in Colombia,” he said. “Best rice you can buy! Do you want some? I have samples in the trunk.”

Of course, we want samples.

He took us through the Chicamocha Canyon and left us in a traffic jam outside Girón. At the center of the carbon-smog chaos, we sat down for lunch.

Leftover pasta and a bag of carrots.

It was delicious.

From there, we got a lift from a placid man. A serene, old farmer that resembled a spanish Kevin Spacey. Gentle. Soft. Lonely.

“Do you have any fears?” he asked.

“The fear of not living life,” I said. “Of not living up to my potential.”

“Splendid.”

He pulled into a gas station and bought four water bottles.

“I don’t normally pick up hitchhikers,” he said. “You’re the first ones. I think my angels and your angels get along and they brought us together for a reason so, here, take this water. I want to help in any way possible.”

He dropped us off near a farm in Lebrija. It was almost night by then. Our chances of getting another ride were lowering with the sun.

Just when we were about to set up camp for the night, a carpenter picked us up. He was an army veteran. His name was Alberto and he talked about gunfights with the FARC in the north.

“They always made their bases on top of mountains, or other hard-to-reach places,” he said. “Usually places that could only be reached by one road so they could easily ambush intruders. It was hard to get in, but, in the end, we usually got in. We had more arms and we had more men.”

“Did you take prisoners?” Ania asked.

“Of course,” he said. “They were valuable. We would ask them how they got their provisions, where their leaders were, everything.”

“Usually, they talked,” he said and paused for a moment to look Ania in the eye.

It was a long moment.

“But don’t think it was easy. The missions were tricky,” Alberto continued. “The FARC loved to use minas quiebrapatas (leg-breaker mines). Every step we took in the forest was a dangerous one. The mines were homemade, usually with manure and other chemicals, and they weren’t powerful enough to kill you, but they would take your legs.”

“Quiebrapatas were mostly used in and around coca fields,” he said. “My friend stepped on one. He was 50 meters in front of me when it blew. Today, he’s in a wheelchair. That could’ve been me.”

We passed a street vendor on the side of the road.

“Have you tried an arepa de choclo?” Alberto asked.

“No, what’s choclo?”

“A special corn, you’ll see.”

Alberto bought us two arepas de choclo. They were dripping with butter and packed with a brick of cheese. Terrifically amazing and terrifically heavy. Ania couldn’t finish hers so she passed it to me.

I made the mistake of eating it.

I tried to digest as we passed a gigantic hydroelectric project. Alberto said a private foreign company was building a dam to export electricity. The road we were driving on would be underwater within two years.

Around nine o’clock, we arrived in muggy, sweaty Barranca and my stomach was still trying to deal with the brick of cheese. Alberto invited us to stay at his mother’s house, arguing the hotels in town were too expensive for us.

“This is a petroleum city,” he said. “The only people that stay in our hotels are engineers that fly in from around the world. They’re all fancy places. Just give my mom a little money and she’d be glad to have you over. Her name’s Esmerelda. She’s quiet a character.”

And, just like that, we continued our Friday the 13th lucky streak and walked into the biggest, strangest, most powerful arms in Colombia.

On the road, Colombia - © Diego Cupolo 2012

With Everybody Watching, Noriega Hides
After a 22-year absence, former dictator Manuel Noriega’s return was supposed to be a historic moment for Panama.
It turned out to be a joke.
People gathered around televisions in the streets, waiting to get a glimpse of old “Pineapple Face,” but he never showed up. News cameras were kept at a distance. Reporters said he had arrived in Panama, but there was no proof.
Airport security claimed there were too many assassination threats.
"What is this, another Bin Laden?" A man yelled at the TV. "I don’t believe anything until I see his face."
Later on, a few blurry images of Noriega were aired. They showed an old, sad man with gray hair being pushed in a wheelchair. He arrived in Panama to serve more jail time for his war crimes and he looked limp.
The people in the streets weren’t satisfied. They seemed hungry for more.
Extra police forces were on patrol throughout the night.
Panama City, Panama - © Diego Cupolo 2011

With Everybody Watching, Noriega Hides

After a 22-year absence, former dictator Manuel Noriega’s return was supposed to be a historic moment for Panama.

It turned out to be a joke.

People gathered around televisions in the streets, waiting to get a glimpse of old “Pineapple Face,” but he never showed up. News cameras were kept at a distance. Reporters said he had arrived in Panama, but there was no proof.

Airport security claimed there were too many assassination threats.

"What is this, another Bin Laden?" A man yelled at the TV. "I don’t believe anything until I see his face."

Later on, a few blurry images of Noriega were aired. They showed an old, sad man with gray hair being pushed in a wheelchair. He arrived in Panama to serve more jail time for his war crimes and he looked limp.

The people in the streets weren’t satisfied. They seemed hungry for more.

Extra police forces were on patrol throughout the night.

Panama City, Panama - © Diego Cupolo 2011

Noriega Returns
Full story on Aljazeera, a news source that unlike U.S. mainstream media, focuses on the event instead of his old drug trafficking charges.
Panama City, Panama - © Diego Cupolo 2011

Noriega Returns

Full story on Aljazeera, a news source that unlike U.S. mainstream media, focuses on the event instead of his old drug trafficking charges.

Panama City, Panama - © Diego Cupolo 2011

They called him “Pineapple face” He worked for the CIA and Pablo Escobar at the same time.He studied at Georgia’s infamous School of Americas and, like many of his classmates, became a violent dictator after graduating.Manuel Noriega - he created the need for a new term in politics: The Narcokleptocracy. Regardless of his reputation, people in his native Panama called him “Pineapple Face” for his acne-scarred complexion … and still do.Noriega was Panama’s de facto military leader from 1983-1989. Though he had absolute rule, he never had absolute respect. He was forced out of power by a one-day United States invasion codenamed “Operation Just Cause.” Warplanes, helicopters, and ground troops attacked military targets and high-density residential neighborhoods in Panama City, causing thousands of civilian casualties in the process, but it was called “Operation Just Cause” …
… so it had to be done.Shortly after the invasion, Noriega was arrested for various human rights violations and drug trafficking charges. Most Panamanians were happy to see him go. His National Guard was known for widespread abuse. Military officials would show up at people’s houses and ask for the keys to their cars. Why? Because they had guns, that’s why.Now, after serving more than 20 years in U.S./French prisons, Noriega will be extradited back to Panama where he will face new trials for his human rights violations and serve even more prison time.I asked the newspaper salesman what he thought about the whole thing.“They should’ve killed the bastard a long time ago,” he said.What a shame, he was such a nice boy before college.[Headline translation: Noriega to return in three weeks]
Panama City, Panama - © Diego Cupolo 2011

They called him “Pineapple face”

He worked for the CIA and Pablo Escobar at the same time.

He studied at Georgia’s infamous School of Americas and, like many of his classmates, became a violent dictator after graduating.

Manuel Noriega - he created the need for a new term in politics: The Narcokleptocracy.

Regardless of his reputation, people in his native Panama called him “Pineapple Face” for his acne-scarred complexion … and still do.

Noriega was Panama’s de facto military leader from 1983-1989. Though he had absolute rule, he never had absolute respect. He was forced out of power by a one-day United States invasion codenamed “Operation Just Cause.”

Warplanes, helicopters, and ground troops attacked military targets and high-density residential neighborhoods in Panama City, causing thousands of civilian casualties in the process, but it was called “Operation Just Cause” …

… so it had to be done.

Shortly after the invasion, Noriega was arrested for various human rights violations and drug trafficking charges. Most Panamanians were happy to see him go. His National Guard was known for widespread abuse. Military officials would show up at people’s houses and ask for the keys to their cars.

Why? Because they had guns, that’s why.

Now, after serving more than 20 years in U.S./French prisons, Noriega will be extradited back to Panama where he will face new trials for his human rights violations and serve even more prison time.

I asked the newspaper salesman what he thought about the whole thing.

“They should’ve killed the bastard a long time ago,” he said.

What a shame, he was such a nice boy before college.

[Headline translation: Noriega to return in three weeks]

Panama City, Panama - © Diego Cupolo 2011

FSLN Landslide
The Nicaraguan elections came and went without much noise.
Ortega won easy. Few were surprised.
Maybe the lack of political enthusiasm was a side effect of our beach town surroundings, but who knows. Voting machines were burned in Matagalpa, hundreds of ballot boxes went missing, all kinds of election day “irregularities” occurred throughout the country prompting criticism from the European Union …
… but no one seemed to care.
"Of course he won. So what?" a bartender told me. "Of course it was a fixed election. So what?"
He didn’t want to talk about it. I asked to borrow a newspaper.
"Just don’t do the crossword puzzle, that’s for my lunch break," was all he said.
Image courtesy of La Prensa.
© Diego Cupolo 2011

FSLN Landslide

The Nicaraguan elections came and went without much noise.

Ortega won easy. Few were surprised.

Maybe the lack of political enthusiasm was a side effect of our beach town surroundings, but who knows. Voting machines were burned in Matagalpa, hundreds of ballot boxes went missing, all kinds of election day “irregularities” occurred throughout the country prompting criticism from the European Union …

… but no one seemed to care.

"Of course he won. So what?" a bartender told me. "Of course it was a fixed election. So what?"

He didn’t want to talk about it. I asked to borrow a newspaper.

"Just don’t do the crossword puzzle, that’s for my lunch break," was all he said.

Image courtesy of La Prensa.

© Diego Cupolo 2011

Javier SpeaksNo, I’m not voting in the elections.I already know who’s going to win.
Daniel.
There’s no real opposition and the FSLN has all the money. It’s corruption. Let me give you an example. We have special officers that count the votes in every election. Normally, each party has their own officer, but all of the officers are now part of the FSLN. Basically, we have people counting votes for the parties they’re running against.People know our government is corrupt, but they don’t do anything about it. They think changing our politics means another war so they don’t complain much. With the revolution not so far in the past, most people just want peace. The FSLN knows this and it’s part of how they stay in power. Not many people will speak badly about them. It’s dangerous to speak against them. They don’t kill you or torture you like Somoza, but they’ll ruin your life.You know, they have offices in every town where they give you a special document saying you’re a Sandinista. If you’re against any of their policies they take this document away from you and most places require it when they hire you.Daniel is looking more like a dictator every year. It’s a shame really. The FSLN started with good intentions: help the poor, vaccinations, health services, education in rural areas. Now things changed. We’re not getting anywhere.Daniel always criticizes the U.S. in his speeches, but then he signs trade deals with them when he gets back to his office. We’ve been getting more help from Chavez lately, but he’s the same. Chavez yells and screams about U.S. imperialism, but in the end he sells most of Venezuela’s oil to the U.S.It’s the same story in every Latin American country. We seem to copy each other, dictators and all.Me, I just want to make a little money and support my family. It’s hard living here on the farm. We lose a lot of money and we don’t even have enough people to work the land anymore. Everyone’s moving to the cities thinking they’ll have better lives, but they just find more problems. You have to buy everything in the city and most of it’s pure garbage.I don’t know what to do, really. I feel stuck. Maybe something will change later, but for now we have Daniel and Daniel promises everything and delivers little.
La Soñada - Miraflor, Nicaragua
© Diego Cupolo 2011

Javier Speaks

No, I’m not voting in the elections.

I already know who’s going to win.

Daniel.

There’s no real opposition and the FSLN has all the money. It’s corruption.

Let me give you an example. We have special officers that count the votes in every election. Normally, each party has their own officer, but all of the officers are now part of the FSLN. Basically, we have people counting votes for the parties they’re running against.

People know our government is corrupt, but they don’t do anything about it. They think changing our politics means another war so they don’t complain much. With the revolution not so far in the past, most people just want peace.

The FSLN knows this and it’s part of how they stay in power. Not many people will speak badly about them. It’s dangerous to speak against them. They don’t kill you or torture you like Somoza, but they’ll ruin your life.

You know, they have offices in every town where they give you a special document saying you’re a Sandinista. If you’re against any of their policies they take this document away from you and most places require it when they hire you.

Daniel is looking more like a dictator every year.

It’s a shame really. The FSLN started with good intentions: help the poor, vaccinations, health services, education in rural areas. Now things changed. We’re not getting anywhere.

Daniel always criticizes the U.S. in his speeches, but then he signs trade deals with them when he gets back to his office. We’ve been getting more help from Chavez lately, but he’s the same. Chavez yells and screams about U.S. imperialism, but in the end he sells most of Venezuela’s oil to the U.S.

It’s the same story in every Latin American country. We seem to copy each other, dictators and all.

Me, I just want to make a little money and support my family.

It’s hard living here on the farm. We lose a lot of money and we don’t even have enough people to work the land anymore. Everyone’s moving to the cities thinking they’ll have better lives, but they just find more problems. You have to buy everything in the city and most of it’s pure garbage.

I don’t know what to do, really. I feel stuck. Maybe something will change later, but for now we have Daniel and Daniel promises everything and delivers little.

La Soñada - Miraflor, Nicaragua

© Diego Cupolo 2011

Afterthoughts: Looking Back On Puerto Rico
I spent five weeks in Puerto Rico to work on my dissertation.
At least that’s what I told people.
For the last four years I’ve lived in Bushwick, a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn, so I laughed when I got a chance to visit the motherland of my reggaeton blasting, late-night salsa dancing neighbors.
I learned plenty about Puerto Rico from afar and thought a trip to the island would finish off my degree in Borinquen cultural studies.
Quite the opposite happened.
Puerto Rico turned out to be far more complex than I ever imagined. Its long history of colonization and strange relationship with the United States make it a hard place to understand for foreigners and even for some of its residents.
Puerto Rico is not a typical Latin American country. Nor is it a typical Caribbean island. It’s part of the United States, but not really. Basically, Puerto Rico is a large question mark with big U.S. military bases.
According to the books, it’s an “unincorporated territory,” which is defined as “belonging to the United States, but not a part of the United States.” This is true politically and also culturally. The people of Puerto Rico are floating in between.
Puerto Rico has been the colony of one country or another for the last 500 years and counting. As a result, the people of Puerto Rico are knee-deep in a foggy swamp. They seem lost in 21st-century imperialism, each one wading through the mud without a true sense of identity or freedom.
It’s sad, really.
What does it mean to be Puerto Rican?
From what I’ve come to understand, this little island represents a world of contemporary problems linked to globalization and capitalism, but more than anything, it represents the failure to find solutions. The entire country is on a leash, being led blindly through socio-economic experiments by a foreign superpower. Sometimes the experiments work favorably, sometimes they don’t. In the end, it is the people of Puerto Rico that must live with the consequences while lawmakers in Washington remain detached, claiming little responsibility.
Is it not ridiculous for a United States “territory” to have 70 percent of its population on welfare?
Sure, it’s not that bad. The majority of Puerto Ricans are comfortable, they have decent lives, but to me it looks like they are being comfortably held down. When a group of people has enough to live and buy big cars and big televisions, they tend not to complain. They doze off and let Ol’ Uncle Sam up north take the steering wheel.
However, I see the possibility of change as I watch videos from the ongoing protests at the University of Puerto Rico. There’s rage in those eyes. The kind of rage that only grows from a deep sense of injustice. The kind of rage that can spread easily during prolonged economic downturns by forcing others to see the overlying system of abuse. 
Change is also taking root in pop culture. The last day I was in Puerto Rico I heard a song called El Hormiguero by Calle 13. The singer describes a colony of ants (Latin America) getting together to take down a big cowboy (The United States). During the chorus, he repeatedly yells, “¿Tu quieres Guerra? (You want war?)”. Many people would consider the song reggaeton, a genre usually considered as apolitical, but it seems Puerto Rico’s most popular music is evolving.
I’ve been trying to understand Puerto Ricans for a long time now. There’s still plenty I need to learn, but I know what I saw during my stay and it was mainly an overwhelming sense of sadness. Sadness leads to depression. Depression, when not acted upon, leads to anger and that’s where we are now. The anger is real. It is present in the subconscious of all Puerto Ricans and the protests at UPR are pushing that anger out into the mainstream.
It looks like some Puerto Ricans are waking up. The question is where will they go with this anger? How will they act upon it?
It’s only a matter of time before we all know, and perhaps, gain a little understanding on this long-suppressed nation.
© Diego Cupolo 2011

Afterthoughts: Looking Back On Puerto Rico

I spent five weeks in Puerto Rico to work on my dissertation.

At least that’s what I told people.

For the last four years I’ve lived in Bushwick, a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn, so I laughed when I got a chance to visit the motherland of my reggaeton blasting, late-night salsa dancing neighbors.

I learned plenty about Puerto Rico from afar and thought a trip to the island would finish off my degree in Borinquen cultural studies.

Quite the opposite happened.

Puerto Rico turned out to be far more complex than I ever imagined. Its long history of colonization and strange relationship with the United States make it a hard place to understand for foreigners and even for some of its residents.

Puerto Rico is not a typical Latin American country. Nor is it a typical Caribbean island. It’s part of the United States, but not really. Basically, Puerto Rico is a large question mark with big U.S. military bases.

According to the books, it’s an “unincorporated territory,” which is defined as “belonging to the United States, but not a part of the United States.” This is true politically and also culturally. The people of Puerto Rico are floating in between.

Puerto Rico has been the colony of one country or another for the last 500 years and counting. As a result, the people of Puerto Rico are knee-deep in a foggy swamp. They seem lost in 21st-century imperialism, each one wading through the mud without a true sense of identity or freedom.

It’s sad, really.

What does it mean to be Puerto Rican?

From what I’ve come to understand, this little island represents a world of contemporary problems linked to globalization and capitalism, but more than anything, it represents the failure to find solutions. The entire country is on a leash, being led blindly through socio-economic experiments by a foreign superpower. Sometimes the experiments work favorably, sometimes they don’t. In the end, it is the people of Puerto Rico that must live with the consequences while lawmakers in Washington remain detached, claiming little responsibility.

Is it not ridiculous for a United States “territory” to have 70 percent of its population on welfare?

Sure, it’s not that bad. The majority of Puerto Ricans are comfortable, they have decent lives, but to me it looks like they are being comfortably held down. When a group of people has enough to live and buy big cars and big televisions, they tend not to complain. They doze off and let Ol’ Uncle Sam up north take the steering wheel.

However, I see the possibility of change as I watch videos from the ongoing protests at the University of Puerto Rico. There’s rage in those eyes. The kind of rage that only grows from a deep sense of injustice. The kind of rage that can spread easily during prolonged economic downturns by forcing others to see the overlying system of abuse. 

Change is also taking root in pop culture. The last day I was in Puerto Rico I heard a song called El Hormiguero by Calle 13. The singer describes a colony of ants (Latin America) getting together to take down a big cowboy (The United States). During the chorus, he repeatedly yells, “¿Tu quieres Guerra? (You want war?)”. Many people would consider the song reggaeton, a genre usually considered as apolitical, but it seems Puerto Rico’s most popular music is evolving.

I’ve been trying to understand Puerto Ricans for a long time now. There’s still plenty I need to learn, but I know what I saw during my stay and it was mainly an overwhelming sense of sadness. Sadness leads to depression. Depression, when not acted upon, leads to anger and that’s where we are now. The anger is real. It is present in the subconscious of all Puerto Ricans and the protests at UPR are pushing that anger out into the mainstream.

It looks like some Puerto Ricans are waking up. The question is where will they go with this anger? How will they act upon it?

It’s only a matter of time before we all know, and perhaps, gain a little understanding on this long-suppressed nation.

© Diego Cupolo 2011