Marketing a devastated Puerto Rico should not be the priority

President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria added one more moment of infamy to Puerto Rico’s 119 years as a colonial territory.

Trump was taken to Muñoz Rivera, a middle-class neighborhood in Guaynabo. Most homes there are made of concrete and saw little impact from Hurricane Maria. The governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, claimed that this location was chosen to save time at the request of the White House staff.

President Donald Trump talks with residents during a tour a neighborhood impacted by Hurricane Maria, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Yet many observers were perplexed that Trump had no direct contact with the most devastated areas on the island. As a scholar of Puerto Rican politics, I wasn’t surprised that some Puerto Rican politicians were willing to play along in this deception. The whole thing reminded me of decades of marketing efforts by Puerto Rican state and municipal governments to lure outsiders by creating the Puerto Rico brand.

But at what cost?

Branding Puerto Rico

The Puerto Rican government and its municipalities have engaged in aggressive marketing campaigns to attract foreign investment as a way to deal with the many challenges that predate the arrival of Hurricane María: a significant amount of debt, growing unemployment and massive migration to the United States. Puerto Rico’s economy, like that of other Caribbean islands, has been based in its consumption since Europeans landed. Relying on tourism led by foreign capital has led to economic dependency.

During the 1990s and early to mid-2000s, the municipality of Guaynabo, a suburb of the capital San Juan, engaged in an aggressive campaign of branding to increase tax revenue. They sought to attract local and foreign investment in real estate development and industries such as retail and telecommunications. Guaynabo used English to lure wealthier residents who viewed the municipality as prestigious. The socioeconomic profile of the municipality changed.

Residents with more economic means moved in and gentrified the area. This came at the expense of the working-class residents who were eventually bought out or kicked out. Public housing units such as Los Álamos were effectively closed. Residents of historic neighborhoods, such as Vietnam, have been resisting displacement.

The government of Puerto Rico also engaged in significant branding efforts to bring tourists from mostly the eastern and southern U.S. – where the majority of Puerto Rico’s tourists come from. “Puerto Rico Does it Better” was a campaign led by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company in the 1990s. During the last four years, there were efforts to brand Puerto Rico as the “The All Star Island.” The government went to great lengths to get this message across in Europe, arranging a contract worth US$3.5 million with a Spanish soccer team, Sevilla FC, to have the slogan on the front of its jersey.