Revenge of America's poor relations

After more than a century at the bottom of the US heap, Puerto Rico has finally turned the tables. Andrew Buncombe reports on a basketball match that inspired a nation
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The Independent US

As he left the basketball court at the Helliniko Indoor Arena in Athens having assured his team of its staggering victory over the United States, Carlos Arroyo wanted no one to be left in any doubt about the strength of his feelings or to where they were directed.

Having scored 24 of his team's 92 points, Arroyo grabbed the front of his shirt, pulling on the words that read "Puerto Rico". "That was him telling his island of four million people he was very proud to beat the big colossus from the north," the team's coach, Julio Toro, said after Sunday's victory.

That unlikely win, which saw Puerto Rico thump the US 92-73, sent waves around the world of basketball: the supposedly invincible US had not lost an Olympic game since the Soviet Union beat them in 1988. Since the US Olympic squad started including professional players from the NBA (National Basketball Association) in 1992, when the "Dream Team" of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson won an effortless gold in Barcelona, it had seemed that coming first was a given.

The defeat is not as bad as it might have been. The US could still easily proceed to the finals and secure the gold medal. Its second group match - against the host nation, Greece - is due to be played tonight in front of what is certain to be a raucous, near-hysterical home crowd. The US only needs to finish in the top four of its six-team group to reach the quarter-finals.

But in addition to revealing its vulnerability on the basketball court, Sunday's victory by Puerto Rico and the impassioned behaviour of Arroyo, the team's match-winning point guard, have drawn attention to the relationship between the US and its colony of more than 100 years - an unfair, sometimes exploitative relationship that today remains at the heart of Puerto Rican politics and society and which continues to divide the Caribbean island.

It also goes some way to explaining the utter flag-waving and horn-honking jubilation with which the victory was met in Puerto Rico, where newspapers splashed the victory on their front pages and television channels continually repeated footage from the game. "This is like winning a gold medal," Carmen Torres, a teacher, from the island's north-coast city of Arecibo, told the Associated Press. "I expected the Puerto Rican team to play well, but the fact that it defeated the world's greatest team is like a dream. I still don't believe it."

Her brother, William Torres Perez, added: "It's like I'm dreaming. This wasn't just a victory, it was a thrashing."

In the streets of Old San Juan, the historic district in the island's capital, young men in SUVs formed an impromptu cavalcade and waved the island's red, white and blue flag shouting: "Puerto Rico ganó a los Estados Unidos."

It should be pointed out that in the strict language of political science, Puerto Rico is no longer technically a colony of Washington. Having been ceded to the US by Spain by the Treaty of Paris in 1898, the same treaty that gave the US the island of Guam, Puerto Rico officially became a commonwealth of the US in July 1952.

In practical terms this means that Puerto Rico resembles a US state. The US federal government is in charge of foreign relations, defence, the postal service as well as customs and immigration. Puerto Ricans are US citizens and would be eligible for the military draft, should it be reintroduced. (Huge numbers of Puerto Ricans already volunteer for the military.) But while Puerto Rico sends a member to the US House of Representatives, that representative - just like the representative from Washington, DC - cannot vote, its citizens do not pay federal taxes and, of crucial importance, Puerto Ricans are not allowed to vote in the US presidential elections.

Defenders of America's colonial relationship argue that there have been many benefits to Puerto Rico from its links to the US. Since the 1940s, when efforts were made under "Operation Bootstrap" to improve the island's economy - and make use of its cheap labour - infrastructure has improved and there has been a huge amount of investment. By as long ago as 1964 more than 200 US companies had relocated there to make use of the labour pool and take the benefit of generous tax breaks.

Today, Puerto Rico has been transformed from one of the poorest islands of the Caribbean to the richest, with a GDP of $39bn (£21bn) and a trading relationship with the US which sees the island produce, among other things, more than 50 per cent of the pharmaceuticals sold on the mainland. A diverse industrial sector - along with tourism - has far surpassed agriculture as the primary locus of economic activity and income.

And yet, the relationship between the island and the US remains uneven and unfair. For all its investment, per capita GDP on Puerto Rico stands at around $11,068 - far lower than the poorest US state - and unemployment remains at around 12 per cent. This is three times higher than on the mainland and has led to a wave of Puerto Ricans - including the match winner, Arroyo, who plays club basketball in Utah - leaving the island. It is estimated that sometime in 2004, the Puerto Rican population outside the island will overtake that on Puerto Rico itself.

The Pentagon has also been happy to make use of the relationship: until May 2003, the US Navy carried out widely condemned bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. The clean-up, ordered by President George Bush in June 2001, is estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take decades to complete. Environmental damage from industry is also widespread on the island.

As a visitor to Puerto Rico, one is instantly struck by the heavy and ever-present influence of the US, be it in the form of ubiquitous fast-food restaurant chains, the US phone system or the prevalence of English on what is a Spanish-speaking island. "If you come to Puerto Rico it might look as if there are a lot of American influences but when you speak to the people you will see that they are not American," a journalist with one of the island's largest newspapers said yesterday, asking not to be named.

The implications of this entanglement of influences will this year play themselves out in the form of the election for the island's governor. Of the three main parties running, the New Progressive Party (PNP) proposes that the island become the 51st state of the US, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) supports the current commonwealth status and the Puerto Rican National Party (PNP) endorses independence.

Perhaps oddly, the independentistas have had little popular support since the 1950s and the party's candidate for governor, Ruben Berrios, is far behind the other two parties in the polls. In 1998, a referendum saw only 2.5 per cent of people vote for total independence. Some observers believe that a number of people inclined to support independence will make a tactical decision to vote for the PPD and that if Mr Berrios obtains 5 per cent of the vote he will have done well.

A partial explanation for the lack of enthusiasm for outright independence must be the perceived economic benefits that the relationship with the US brings. It may also be that with so many Puerto Ricans now living in the US, many feel an inseparable bond has been created.

Teodoro Huertas, an islander who watched the basketball match in the Puerto Rica Beneficial Society's bar and restaurant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, summed up his mixed feelings in an interview with The Morning Call, his local newspaper. "My heart is with the United States but my emotion was with Puerto Rico," he said. "It was a big surprise. The United States had a lot of power, like David and Goliath, and David won."

Another fan, John Hernandez, who was also celebrating, said: "I feel very emotional. I feel very privileged to be part of a very small team and to have beaten a team that gets paid millions of dollars. As a Puerto Rican, you have to be proud." For all the enthusiasm with which Sunday's victory has been met, it is unlikely that it will have much impact on November's election, in which an astonishing 80 per cent of voters are expected to participate. Polls show that Pedro Rossello, the candidate of the PNP which supports Puerto Rican becoming a US state, is anywhere up to seven points ahead of the PPD's candidate, Anibal Acevedo Vila.

"I don't think that it will have much of an effect. They will celebrate and then it will be back to work," said the Puerto Rican journalist.

"There has been a joke that the game should be played the day before the election and that there should be free alcohol for everybody - then they will vote for independence. Independence will be voted for when people are drunk."

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