Vanderbilt on a Friday

‘I wonder when they’ll realize that they’ve been building below sea level.’

When I was a teenager, my dad and I would wake up early, at least one morning each weekend, and walk from one end of our neighborhood to another. We would begin, of course, at our apartment building, located on a quiet street that in the morning was suffused with a peaceful golden light. This was especially so if it had rained the night before. We’d walk from there down a street that hugged the coastline. Past the hospital, past a few small shops, past a pharmacy and a colmado, and – inevitably—past the construction zone of the Vanderbilt Hotel.

The Vanderbilt, one of the ritziest hotels in all of San Juan, took about a decade to build. In that time, my height increased by a good ten or twelve inches, the island witnessed the installation and replacement of several governors, and the sea level rose too much. My dad’s preoccupation had to do with this last point – as we passed the construction site, he would typically offer some variation of the above comment. The fact that the construction of this hotel was out of sync with the ecology was indeed worrying. And over time, I developed some other, related worries of my own.

A couple of years ago, the Vanderbilt opened for business. The lobby was spectacular, decorated in velvety reds that juxtaposed dramatically with the deep turquoise of the ocean. However, after a while, I learned that while the lobby was open, none of the guest-rooms were even remotely finished. Put a different way, while the lobby had already acquired great social standing, each and every one of the upper-level rooms was a gutted disaster filled with concrete, and perhaps the occasional roach.  Not quite up to the standards, I would wager, of their preferred customers.

Today (and I do mean, literally today), the Vanderbilt is playing host to an event called ‘The Lifestyle Program.’ It is exclusively for the spouses of the Puerto Rico Investment Summit attendees. The Puerto Rico Investment Summit, for those of you who are wondering, is—to quote directly from the event’s materials—‘The Premier Investment Conference in the Caribbean.’ It explores ‘Opportunities Under Acts 20, 22, 273, 399 and Other Investment Vehicles in Puerto Rico.’ Simply stated, it gives local politicians, lawyers, and bankers a chance to network with foreign (US and international) investors—and, together, explore the exciting opportunities that Puerto Rico’s financial crisis offers for the world’s wealthiest.

The event, which consists of conference sessions and $150-per-person galas in equal measure, is sponsored by the Puerto Rican Department of Economic Development and Commerce, and a number of partners. These include Sotheby’s (an international art dealer), El Nuevo Día (a Boricua newspaper), BDO (a consulting firm), and a dozen or so listed others. Guest speakers include Alejandro García Padilla, the Governor of Puerto Rico, former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and John Paulson, the CEO of Paulson & Co.

As I write this, the Lifestyle Program for Spouses is underway. Information sessions on real estate, healthcare, education, and lifestyle are taking place. The invited speakers represent the island’s elite in all of these sectors. As I gaze in the direction of the hotel and peruse the program brochure, I cannot help but notice the irony that amidst a real financial crisis, people are celebrating the fact that the so-called best of what Puerto Rico has to offer is open, wide open, to them.

I am not in a position to write about what the financial ramifications of outside investment are on Puerto Rico. I do not have access to that kind of information. But in truth, neither does anyone else. Whether or not the welfare of the island is being discussed in this summit is something that most of us may never know. We cannot pretend to know precisely what is going on.

But nor can we believe implicitly in the value of foreign investment – in the ability of outside capital to, by default, create jobs and improve an economy. And we definitely cannot believe that such private investment is a good thing if, at the same time as these conversations are happening, funding is dwindling within the public sector. The budgets for services like higher education are being slashed. I do not trust the opportunities that the summit attendees are discussing. And I don’t have to.

‘I wonder when they’ll realize that they’ve been building below sea level.’ You can take my dad’s comment literally—after all, it’s true. But you can also take it metaphorically. As I’ve seen in Condado, environmental and social responsibility are not top priorities when new construction projects are approved, and overhauls to the ecological and cultural landscape take place. Irresponsibility is permitted, often in the name of luxury. Symbolically and in fact, wealthy investors are indeed building below sea level. They are making choices that do not correspond to the irrefutable realities of contemporary environmental, economic and social conditions on the island (or indeed, the wider world). Nor do they seem at all interested or (if you like) invested in the changes that need to take place for Puerto Rico to thrive—and to, in the words of a friend, ‘come out of this on the other side.’

More than the Vanderbilt’s structural integrity is at stake here. And fortunately, the community of activists on this island is formidable and resilient. Pa’lante.