Puerto Rico Culture in Post-“Commonwealth” Era

Could the Director at the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, Carlos Ruiz Cortes, be the missing link between the colonial past and the post-colonial future?

In the face of PROMESA-mandated cuts to government grants for fine arts and heritage institutions, Ruiz Cortes is focused on the success of his people once full democracy is achieved in the future. Instead of defending the failed ideologies of the past that led to Puerto Rico’s present failed client state syndrome, he calls for those in budget reduction culture shock to “re-invent themselves.”

His realism about the collapse of government maintenance for a cultural arts standard not sustained by private society could inspire and awaken a new creative spirit in the cultural arts community. His example of affirmative adaptation to the hard choices that come with even positive social change could serve as a role model for management of change in other political, economic and social sectors.

In a recent San Juan Daily Star newspaper interview Ruiz Cortes presented an image of reverent devotion to local cultural values. However, his dedication to cultural affairs is combined with a business-like recognition of new social realities that make it “a different world out there.”

That balance between passion and practicality may best exemplify mastery of strategies for enterprising people to get out ahead of change instead of resentfully resisting it, while others exploit new opportunities and prosper. Whether intentionally or because he has no choice, Ruiz Cortes is at least opportunistically attempting to cultivate a new self-reliant creed among those whose creativity produces and contributes to arts and culture.

The choice to resist or adapt must also be addressed by private sector patrons of the arts who have welcomed public sector subsidization and even ownership of cultural ventures the bankrupt “Commonwealth” regime no longer can afford. Will the cocktail party patrons of the arts merely sustain or step up and increase financial commitments to the art and culture community?

Will artists who won favor serving the state cultural bureaucracy but have not prospered in the more discerning and competitive private fine arts marketplace adapt and survive or wander off into more quotidian pursuits? The underlying question is whether artists and patrons of the arts who grew comfortably dependent or even thrived under the debt-financed largesse of the local government fill the vacuum created by the Potemkin Village also known as “Commonwealth” – until its true revealed nature was confirmed in 2016?

Ruiz Cortes seems disinclined to allow implosion of the myth that Puerto Rico could remain a territory but pretend to be a nation to demoralize him or his constituent bastions of cultural artifact. Instead, Ruiz Cortes at least talks a good game about the necessity of a new independence from state sponsored art culture. He boldly asserts that as Director of IPRC he, “came here to work without excuses, so whatever happens, the Institute will continue operating, with or without [public] money.”

This is nothing less than a call for those who relied on government to make their life in arts culture easier to maintain now to embrace change, and and to become even more true to their artistic and cultural values by working harder to do more with less. Ruiz Cortes told the Daily Star, “Puerto Rico is totally different from five or 10 years ago when these [public grants] amounts were fixed.”

In the next breath he defined the challenge ahead, adding “Each foundation must change taking into consideration that the state can no longer help as it did before. We must look for better ways to get money, not only from the state, but from private industry and external funds.”

Ruiz Cortes may well understand better than most how vulnerable government subsidization made those in the art and culture world who depended on it to make it unnecessary to compete in the marketplace or support from patrons with refined tastes. He also seems to understand that too many people thought the status quo under the “Commonwealth” regime would continue indefinitely by default because neither statehood nor independent nationhood seemed impossible.

What now has become clear is that “Commonwealth” party leaders made promises that could not be kept without borrowing more than a territorial government could pay back. Instead of “fiscal autonomy” making Puerto Rico a “country” with a government sponsored “national” cultural arts sector in the image of Cuba’s, the federal and local tax schemes that propped up the “Commonwealth” regime ensured the eventual failure of the local arts industry. That is now the trend among far too many enterprise sectors dominated by the “Commonwealth” government rather than private enterprise

To his credit, Ruiz Cortes told the Daily Star he has written to the PROMESA Board and urged that the arts and cultural heritage industry be developed fully as a vital sector of the local private economy. If that is going to happen, it may be that reduction or elimination of the government grants to unprofitable entities like the Ateneo Puertorriqueno and the Puerto Rico Spanish Language Academy is the first step toward recovery of the cultural arts sector.

No one likes to see cultural arts programs cut off, but even worse is seeing marginal state sponsored cultural arts enterprises getting underwhelming results while adding to the public debt that has bankrupted Puerto Rico. It will be interesting to see if leaders asking the same questions and giving the same answers as Ruiz Cortes will emerge in retail, banking, real estate, tourism, manufacturing, IT, agriculture and other sector of the local political economy.

The end of the territorial “Commonwealth” is coming; the winners will be those who invest early in a new social and political reality.

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