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Author Decries Exploitation of Puerto Rico

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Author Nelson Denis (r) talks with a few readers, including artist Amaury Díaz (c) at the event at Polytechnic University. /Nancy Rosado

More than 150 people gathered under a cloudless sky enjoying a cool breeze in the courtyard of Polytechnic University in east Orange County to hear author Nelson Denis talk about his new book, “The War Against All Puerto Ricans,” a provocative title for a book about the early years of the United States’ presence in Puerto Rico, from 1898 through about 1950.

Many guests came clutching the 379-page hardcover, which has sold 35,000 copies in the states and Puerto Rico,  seeking an  autograph. Readers clearly wanted to hear more stories and Denis didn’t disappoint, telling the crowd of Puerto Rican community leaders, organizers and activists tale after tale and sometimes tales within a tale.

“There’s a little bit of the island right here,” Denis told those gathered, who also were feted to a horn rendition of “La Borinqueña,” the island’s national anthem.

Denis broached the subject of Puerto Rico’s fiscal emergency head on – the island has $70 billion in bond debt that it cannot repay, a topic that is much on the minds of many Puerto Ricans in Florida and other states with a large Puerto Rican diaspora. Talks currently are underway to attempt to resolve the issue.

While Capitol Hill was focused Friday on the marathon Benghazi hearing with Hillary Clinton, a Senate hearing was taking place tucked away in another area of the Capitol concerning Puerto Rico’s financial crisis.

The author and former newspaper editorial director took a dim view of any positive outcome or relief, saying the federal government’s heart wasn’t in it and bond holders aren’t interested in a debt repayment.

Instead, he alleged, bondholders covet the underlying collateral or assets, which he said is in keeping with a long history of exploitation of the island, a running theme of the book.

“People talk a lot about how Puerto Rico needs the three Ps:  public-private partnerships. I think they want 5 Ps – a public-private partnership to plunder Puerto Rico,” he said.

Denis ended the evening on a note of warning: “What’s happening in Puerto Rico is a template for what can happen elsewhere,” he said, alluding to any one of the 50 states.

˜Maria T. Padilla,  Editor

‘War Against Puerto Ricans’ Coming to Orlando

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The book The War Against All Puerto Ricans published earlier this year is riding a wave of mostly bad news about Puerto Rico, including a nine-year economic recession that won’t quit, an unprecedented migration to the states, an aging population, an unpayable $72 billion in debt and the specter of default.

All of which has made it easier for author Nelson Denis, former editorial director of the newspaper El Diario La Prensa in New York, to connect the dots of what he states is the United States’ poor treatment of the island over 117 years – and sell lots of books.

“It’s pretty much 117 years of Puerto Rico being ignored,” said Denis, who will be in Orlando this week to promote the book  whose subtitle is “Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony.”

Denis’ book spans the island history after 1898, when the United States took possession of the island after the Spanish-Cuban-American War, and through the 1940s, when nationalism and pro-independence fervor was at its height. He spells out sometimes in painful and riveting detail (there are 71 pages of footnotes) the deals and dealmakers who plundered the island. Even today, in the face of the current economic crisis, the political relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico remains unclear, a “riddle,  wrapped  in a mystery, inside an enigma,” to quote Winston Churchill.

“The version of events is now under severe discredit,” he said, referring to how Puerto Rico came to its current political status as a commonwealth of the United States. Actually, that is too polite. “Sold out” is more Denis’ term.war against

The War Against All Puerto Ricans has been well received by critics and the public, selling 35,000 copies. Between 20,000 and 25,000 flew off the shelves in Puerto Rico, although the book is written in English. The Spanish translation comes out in November, opening up the book to even more readers and possibly new markets.

Denis is focused on trying to land a film deal, which he thinks would help reach a younger and broader audience.

“A movie is a synthetic event and yet the irony is that in this day and age it underscores the reality and makes it feel like a real event,” said the Yale-educated lawyer. In other words, it’s not real unless it’s on the big or little screen.

As for a book-writing encore, Denis said he may next tackle the issue of the carpetas, the secret surveillance files of Puerto Rican activists maintained by the FBI and other government agencies. Said Denis: “I want to let people know this information is out there.”

Catch Nelson Denis Friday, October 23, at 6:30 p.m. at the Universidad Politécnica, across from Valencia College off Econlockhatchee Trail in east Orange County.  The event is free and open to the public.

˜ María Padilla, Editor

Old Asociación Borinqueña Building Rises Again

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The Centro Borinqueño building in east Orange County before Acacia Network completed the latest upgrades and renovations. /Archive

 

The Encuentro Nacional of the Puerto Rican diaspora wasn’t the only news coming out of the Centro Borinqueño, the venue for the national gathering of Puerto Rican elected officials and others in east Orange County last week. In fact, there were many stories and one of them is the Centro Borinqueño itself.

The meeting, attended by 300 or so people, was a “coming out” of sorts for Acacia Network, which owns the Centro Borinqueño building, well known in Central Florida for its iconic sentry box reminiscent of the Spanish forts built in the Hispanic Caribbean and Latin America.

Raul Russi

In 2014 New York-based Acacia  Network, a social services nonprofit, bought the building’s $1 million bank note from Fifth Third Bank after the building had entered into foreclosure proceedings. The original owner was the Asociación Borinqueña, the oldest member-based Puerto Rican organization in the Orlando area. They constructed the building and then couldn’t keep up the payments or maintenance. Acacia states that it didn’t want the community to lose the building forever, so the group bought it at the urging of some company and local leaders.

After Acacia purchased the building – but before it took possession – the building was stripped of certain assets, including kitchen appliances/equipment and other items. (I toured the nearly empty building at the time.)  Acacia officials joked that they were lucky the Amaury Díaz mural of Old San Juan was not taken down. (Actually, there had been a contentious discussion of it, according to sources.)

Since then, Acacia has poured “hundreds of thousands of dollars” into upgrades, according to Raúl Russi, CEO of Acacia.  Improvements include resurfacing of the parking lot, new paint job inside and out, new stage, and new tables and chairs, among other things. And the kitchen? It’s expected to be finished by the start of the holidays, Russi said.

Acacia footed the bill for the Encuentro Nacional, not only providing the space but also the open bar and appetizers the night of the reception and the breakfast and lunch on the day of the symposium, which was organized by several groups. (Financial advisor Julio Rocha paid for the printing of the program.)

“This is your place. You built it. This is your center,” Russi told the gathering. “We want to make this a place where we can have safe discussions – with different opinions – but as Puerto Ricans,” he said.

All Eyes on ‘Floriricans’

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About 300 Puerto Ricans from all parts of the country and Puerto Rico gathered at the Centro Borinqueño in Orlando for a first-ever meeting of the Puerto Rican diaspora. / photo by Maria Padilla

 

This week’s Encuentro Nacional of the Puerto Rican diaspora was a gathering of historic proportions for the local and national Puerto Rican community. For the first time ever Puerto Rican elected leaders from about eight states – including  congressional representatives Nydia Velázquez of New York, Luis Gutiérrez of Chicago, José Serrano of New York (via Skype), Brendan Boyle of Philadelphia and Central Florida’s own Alan Grayson – came together to demonstrate the potential strength of the Puerto Rican voter and also examine solutions to the fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico, weighed down by $70 billion in debt and a sagging economy that includes a nine-year recession.

Going forward the onus is on the 300 or so leaders and activists at the meeting, held in the newly refurbished Centro Borinqueño (formerly the Asociación Borinqueña) in east Orange County, to create a plan of action, to show that this was not just another conference of talking heads and pundits but a serious stab at resolving issues both aquí and allá , at being agents of change.

The moment is pregnant with possibilities. For one, the Puerto Rican population of Florida now numbers more than 1 million, generating a shift in focus –  and hope – to Orlando, where Puerto Ricans are concentrated.

“We don’t appreciate the magnitude of the moment that we’re going through in Puerto Rico and the diaspora,” said Edwin Meléndez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York, who attended the gathering. “We’re growing faster [in the states] than other Latinos … and that trend is not going to stop.”

Puerto Ricans are fleeing the island in unprecedented numbers –perhaps as many as 50,000 this year alone – plus Puerto Rican migration from other states has produced “a realignment” of the stateside Puerto Rican community, currently focused on Florida instead of New York, he said.

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