Friday, June 23, 2017

Booknote: Banquete Total

Jay Fonseca, Banquete Total: Cuando la Corrupción Dejó de Ser Ilegal.  San Juan, PR: Autopublicación, 2013.  ISBN: 978-1-937891275.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: Puerto Rico, politics, Spanish language books.
Format: trade paperback
Source: Interlibrary Loan via my work library, Hutchins Library, Berea College. The book came from the UC Berkeley Libraries.

This book is basically a catalog of Puerto Rican political corruption in the 20th century, give or take at least the last 60 years or so. If you need to know why the island is so fucked up, in addition to American colonial exploitation and pillage, this is the book you need. Disgusting does not even begin to describe it, and yet I kept on reading it like someone rubbernecking a bad train wreck. The reason I read this book is because Nelson Denis, author of War Against All Puerto Ricans (a book I read, see my review here), mentioned it in an article he wrote for The Nation entitled "After a century of American Citizenship, Puerto Ricans Have Little to Show for It." If I recall, one of the many links Denis has in the article mentioned the book. Anyhow, the article is worth a read too. Banquete Total is a self-published book that may be a bit of a niche market outside of the island: Puerto Rican local politics, specifically politics other than the ever present question of the island's political status. Lucky for me, a few large universities that have Puerto Rican Studies programs have the book in their libraries, so I was able to borrow the book via Interlibrary Loan.

The situation as of the end of the book and this blog post: The Partido Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive Party, or PNP by its Spanish initials; they are the pro-statehood party, and they lean heavy Republican) is currently in power, and they are certainly exploiting power, graft, and greed. However, their predecessors, the Partido Popular Democratico (Popular Democratic Party, or PPD. They are they pro-commonwealth party, a.k.a. the colonial status the island has now) were doing it before. The only difference is that, much like U.S. Republicans, the PNP greed and corruption are not subtle at all. But in the end, as Fonseca points out, at some point corruption in Puerto Rico became no longer illegal nor immoral.

If you have been gone from the island for many years as I have, and you have not kept up, you might need a road map to read the book. This is a book written by a local person for other locals who already known the cast of players really well. So if you live abroad and have not kept up with local politics, you may want to keep Google handy to look up a reference here or there. I have managed to keep up best I can, plus I grew up in much of the time period he is writing about. There may have been a small detail I did have to look up, but overall, I was able to get it just fine. It amazes me that the  more things change, the more they stay the same. The actors have changed over time, but the shameless corruption, greed, nepotism (if you think Trump having his daughter as an "advisor" is bad, that's nothing compared to some of the things in this book), graft, etc. is the same as when I grew up in the island during the 1970s and 1980s; in some ways, it has gotten worse. This is a book that made me sad at times, and it made me angry here or there. Yet it managed to also make me laugh in some parts that seem so out there that I bet even García Márquez would say, "Damn! really people?" At times, Macondo has nothing on  Puerto Rico.

The book has a short prologue, and it is organized in eight chapters. Fonseca does his best not to leave readers in despair, so in chapter seven he does provide 75 solutions to solve the island's problems. There are some idealistic ideas (think a bit of pie in the sky here), but there are also some very concrete, realistic, and viable solutions that could be implemented if Puerto Ricans ever get their act together, stop voting for the same two parties that are only interested in power (getting it, keeping it, and undermining the other side when they lose so they can get back in power again, rinse and repeat), and elect people who will truly put the interests of the island and the people first. I am not holding my breath on that ever happening.

Still, the book is an interesting read. Fonseca keeps a mostly light tone throughout. Reading the book is like hanging out with your cool, somewhat radical, knowledgeable uncle having a couple of drinks and food in the house's front porch. That relaxed, conversational tone makes the book accessible and easier to read. The subject matter is  heavy and dark, but Fonseca lays it out well, explains things, and makes it easy to read.

Overall, the book provides a good look at the island's internal situation; this is stuff you will rarely see outside of the island. Yes, American exploitation has been terrible for the island, but as if that was not bad enough, the elites of the island, often collaborating or selling out to the colonial oppressors, have wrought great damage for the sake of power and greed; that pain is self-inflicted. In the end, it is not an easy book to read, but it is an important book that I hope more people read, especially Puerto Ricans.

4 out of 5 stars.

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Additional reading notes. The quoted passages come from the book, so they are in Spanish. Since some are a bit lengthy I am not translating  unless someone actually requests it. These are mostly ideas from the book I wish to remember or that I reacted to somehow while I read the book.

First off, the epigraph Fonseca uses to open the book is perfect. It basically sets the tone for the book and sums things up. I remember reading and enjoying Ernesto Cardenal's poetry when I was in graduate school. I may need to reread some of his poetry again:

"Libértanos tú
porque no nos libertarán sus partidos
Se engañan los unos a los otros
Sus mentiras son repetidas por mil radios
sus calumnias están en todos los periódicos."

--Ernesto Cardenal, "Salmo 11." 

Fonseca, in addition to being a journalist, is also a lawyer (his ordeal to becoming a lawyer in Puerto Rico was quite an ordeal full of pettiness and retaliation from folks in power that makes quite a tale, but you can read about it in the book). Like many lawyers, and many of us in general who can read and interpret the world around us, he realized early on the system is literally a pile of shit. His epiphany came when he read Marbury v. Madison, 5 US 137 (1803) early on in law school. I admit my own epiphany was a bit more gradual, but I reached the same conclusion, though I am not a lawyer. I am a librarian and teacher. Fonseca writes,

"Desde entonces los abogados y abogadas que realmente leyeron y entendieron el caso terminan sufriendo de algún tipo de depresión o negación, pues llegan a saber muy rápido que todo el sistema es un estercolero y que es una quimera pensar que la democracia es un legítimo modelo pristino y que la división de  poderes no existe y solo se levanta para darle perfume al embuste que vivimos. Ahí se encargan de ir deformando tu mente y empiezas a sufrir de desolación, solo que lo disimulas para ser funcional viviendo de felicidad temporera en felicidad temporera hasta que te conformas con que ni modo, 'así son las cosas' y si quieres cambiarlo vas a pagar un precio que solo los mártires pueden explicar. Y total, es el menos malo de los sistemas que hemos vivido porque al menos te ofrece la impresión de tener algo de poder cada cuatro años y la esperanza de subir un gobierno que sea pulcro está latente" (30). 

That is a seriously depressing life truth. I had to laugh at the last line, and not in a good way. My mother used to say "de la esperanza vive el cautivo" (the captive lives out of hope). Given the island is a captive colony, and to quote George Carlin once more, "people suck," so the situation is actually pretty hopeless.

Contrary to popular belief or what we may have learned in school, people can't really bring down a government by elections:

"Pues contrario a lo que nos han enseñado siempre, no es del todo cierto que el pueblo pueda 'tumbar' al gobierno en cada elección. De hecho, si algo ha demonstrado la democracia es su impresionante capacidad para rmantener el establishment o gobierno permanente. . . " (47).

A few more thoughts from the reading:

  • What is the difference between a politician and a leader? A politician is successful as long as he wins elections. A leader is successful if he inspires people, regardless of his position. One is not the same as the other (47). 
  • A summary of Puerto Rican political corruption, which involves not only government officials but also the people who work for them and with them: Basically, politicians in the island rise in power surrounded by people who want access to said power. Those people could not care less about the public good. They are only interested in their own self interests. They are interested only in money and power. In order to get those, they have to affiliate themselves to a political party (either PNP or PPD). So, they charge outrageous fees for their "services" because they need to provide for themselves not only for the time they work for the "public interest", but also to cover for the time spent lobbying and pushing to get power and influence and then to cover for the lean times when their party falls out of power, and they lose their political jobs (107). They then wait out four or eight  years til their party gets power again, and the whole process repeats itself. And by the way, this is not just Puerto Rico; the U.S. does it too, though Puerto Ricans have made it into a true art form. 
  • Who really has the power  in the  end? It is not the government as you would think. It is people and powers that  do not submit themselves to the will of the people via elections. This includes the following: the Fed, banks, wealthy families, television, radio, newspapers, and media, construction companies and insurance companies, investors (who may or not be corrupt), unions and sindicates, churches, and even drug cartels, universities, nonprofit organizations, and social media. All those folks care about is money. 

Though Fonseca tries to end the book on a somewhat positive note, the situation overall looks gruesome. At this point, there are only two sides left: those who have left the island pretty much for good, and those who remain. Those who left are pretty much gone. I do not hold hope for those who remain who keep enabling the system. As he  pleads in the  end, best some of us can do is to stay informed, keep studying, learning to analyze, and think critically for yourself. That may be a way for change, but as I said, I am not holding my breath on it.

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This book qualifies for the following 2017 Reading Challenges:

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