Half a century ago Puerto Rico was the poorest country in the West, including Haiti. At that time I was living penuriously in what was to become New York’s Spanish Harlem, then the preserve of Italian immigrants. This Little Italy of the Upper East Side was virtually ruled by the colorful communist Congressman Vito Marcantonio, my next-door neighbor. From here I was able to monitor the bias and bigotry directed against the incoming Puerto Ricans by the fly-by-night mayors of the period—”Fugitive Bill” O’Dwyer (who coined the term “milk-bottle thieves” to describe the new immigrants) and Vincent Impellitteri—as well as the local bank managers, numbers-racket “civics clubs,” and street-side vendors. All this has altered for the better, excepting perhaps the fish markets, then located under the picturesque old El.

In Puerto Rico Hispanics have now created, out of the highest population density in the Caribbean and few natural resources, a model community (for the area) with a standard of living way above that of neighboring countries. The immaculate new American Airlines hub created in the tatty old Luis Muñoz Marin Airport is outstanding testimony to investor confidence. For Puerto Rico has not gone to sleep on the laurels of tourism, with all its ancillary attractions—the vast resort hotels of Condado and Isla Verde, the famous phosphorescent bay at Parguera, the Camuy cave park, the multiple casinos; it has created a back-up manufacturing infrastructure whose share of per-capita gross domestic product ranks higher than any on mainland America, let alone that of adjacent Jamaica, lagging ten times behind and repeatedly forced into devaluations.

This infrastructure has provided a buffer against the fragility of those Caribbean economies that rely so heavily, often uniquely, on that fickle jade called tourism. Once prosperous Barbados, for instance, is today swallowing the kill-or-cure medicine of the IMF, requiring a large cut in its unproductive civil service or massive devaluation, while the banana islands will be in deep trouble when the European Community declines their (presently subsidized) fruit for cheaper and better substitutes out of Costa Rica. I have flown over the large Costa Rican banana plantations and watched the spraying of the crop; there can be no question as to whose is superior. Meanwhile, Puerto Rican wages are four times those in Mexico, and the country remains an agreeable place in which to live, indeed to thrive, when compared with its neighbors. Spanish Harlem loses its attraction, even as a staging-point for immigrants, particularly when the same American welfare benefits can be obtained on the island itself. It is well-known that only one percent of Puerto Rico’s population voted for independence.

Apart from spouting the customary Castroite rhetoric, this element has argued that the island’s success is due to a section of the U. S. tax code known as 936, which offered incentives in the form of tax credits to U.S. companies locating on the island, especially in electronics, pharmaceuticals, and the like. Sure it did. Why? Because 936 companies identified a skilled and diligent work force before sinking their money into this “poorhouse of the Caribbean,” a once joke-country that is now the Singapore of the region. Puerto Rico’s GNP has soared from $3.7 billion in 1950 to more than $20 billion today.

Of course, the average vacationer will care little for statistics, heading for Condado’s fleshy beaches and the mile-long resorts built along them. Such are perhaps a trifle depressingly reminiscent of Miami Beach or Fort Lauderdale. Vast marshmallow skyscrapers run into each other like mammoth dice. Still, they supply the world’s weary, and their young, with the backdrop they want, and one cannot say them nay. Plus it is easy to close eyes and ears to the raucous rock music and overfed bodies grilling under the pitiless sun and hie on past to the splendid Morro fortress, nemesis of Drake, where a million-dollar restorative project has preserved the last of the 18th century—churches, belfries, cobbled streets—in the erstwhile capital.

This section of San Juan has great charm, with its wrought-iron miradors and gingerbread balconies, which are presided over by potted plants and wary cats. I stayed at the gracious El Convento Hotel, a converted convent beside the cathedral and overlooking a leafy square. This is no mere hostelry; the installation has preserved all the original decorative elements (stained-glass windows, chandeliers, rustic tiles, and goatskin lamps) and was carried out entirely by indigenous architects respectful of the continuity of the site’s religious past.

This old center may be small but it is larger than similar architectural relics of its kind in South America, all succumbing to the depradations of high-rise office buildings; Salvador da Bahia in Brazil is a case in point. But if the renovations of Old San Juan have been accomplished with taste under the auspices of the island’s Institute of Culture, the folkloric artifacts sold in the luxury stores crowding these cobbled streets—acres of gold jewelry on offer here—lack in comparison with the architecture. The authenticity of the latter is conspicuously degraded by the crudity of dolls, figurines, plates, bowls, and general gimcrackery of a vulgarity that makes sad contrast with the lingering tradition of ceramic tiles, wooden stairway risers, and courtyard gardens.

In this respect I fear that tourism, even high tourism, has a deadening effect; art has to be made out of affection or fun, not simply to satisfy what are conceived to be the desires of a tourist market. Time and again I have returned to sources of charming folkloric art in South America only to find them vanished or degraded.

Finally, it remains to be seen what route Puerto Rico and its new governor will take in the coming months. Will the country be content to keep its current commonwealth status or will it decide to become another state? The former relationship confers on its citizenry virtually all the benefits of full American citizenship, but educated opinion on the island seems resigned to a symbolic vote for statehood. In this case Puerto Rico would have more representatives in Congress than the whole of New York State, a sobering consideration (apart from that of taxation). For it is unlikely that such servants of the public would read this Hispanic success story of the past half-century for what it says between the lines: namely, that a people who are not treated as secondclass citizens, or coddled by affirmative actions and condescended to by Uncle Sam’s subsidies as victims perpetually reminded of past injustices, can do very well on their own, thank you.