Monday, December 17, 2007

In the same boat

Mexico D.F.-- Not many people remember that Filipinas, Cuba and Puerto Rico are virtual sisters bound together by historical and cultural ties for they were colonies of Spain and were lost at almost the same time and for practically the same reasons. Through force of circumstances, Cuba has taken a distinct path but Puerto Rico and Filipinas are more or less in the same boat, specially when protecting built heritage resources.

A few days ago, a friend from Puerto Rico told me that he was so incensed about a “Paseo Caribe” project that he joined mass protests in San Juan to denounce its adverse effect on their most significant heritage site, the Fortin San Jeronimo. It brought to mind our own endangered Intramuros.

Apparently, the ¨Paseo Caribe” is a cluster of five high rise condo-hotels with entertainment and shopping centers and two parking buildings for 1,400 vehicles. My friend said the complex eclipses the view of Fortin San Jeronimo and its site and settings which include Paseo La Princesa and the historic La Princesa prison where many patriots were incarcerated.

At the onset in 2001, the Instituto Cultural Puertoriqueño voiced its opposition to the “Paseo Caribe” project as it encroaches on archeological sites around the Fortin area, as well as impedes access. However, with total impunity, the San Jeronimo developers fast tracked construction so in desperation the Instituto Cultural ran to the Senate which immediately called a committee hearing. We don’t know if that was done in aid of legislation but it seems the Senate discovered that the coastal land occupied by the “Paseo Caribe” was/is public domain.

How did the developer get all the required permits and clearances? Was government property privatized without public knowledge? If it had been sold, for how much ? On the other hand, humble homes belonging to poor workers were summarily appropriated because these were too near the walls of Fortin San Jeronimo. Why the double-standard?-- the Partido Independista senators wanted to know.

According to Senate findings, deeply embroiled in the ¨Paseo Caribe” controversy were the former secretaries of Natural Resources and Environment, the Interior, plus the spouse of an ex- governor. As it turned out, the erstwhile Secretary of Economic Planning was the principal promoter. Throughout his watch, during interagency meetings on government flagship projects, he would order his subalterns to expedite the permits of San Jeronimo Development Co. Not surprising was the Department of Justice´s request that all Senate materials be submitted to them; a criminal case was initiated promptly.

But despite restraining orders, mass demos by outraged environmentalists and the academe, and firm resolutions from the Association of American Jurors, the “Paseo Caribe” seems to have acquired a life of its own and is now approaching a second phase, the “Paseo La Princesa”. In Puerto Rico and Filipinas, culture, historical landmarks and heritage are protected by the Constitution, but in both places, my friend and I agreed, there are stationary bandits too greedy to put heritage resources to good use.