Negotiating Paradise: U.S. Tourism and Empire in Twentieth-Century Latin America

By Dennis Merrill | Go to book overview

FIVE
Bootstraps, Beaches,
and Cobblestone:
Commonwealth Puerto Rico

In May 1958, following his highly publicized confrontation with the hostile crowds of Caracas, Venezuela, Vice President Richard Nixon beat a hasty retreat to more tranquil surroundings in sunny Puerto Rico. The night of his arrival, he spent forty minutes wading through four blocks of historic Old San Juan amid throngs of people who cheered ‘‘Arriba Nixon!’’ Later that evening, in the candlelit dining room of the four-hundredyear-old governor’s mansion, La Fortaleza, Governor Luis Muñoz Marín hosted a state dinner. Declared Nixon, ‘‘I couldn’t think of a better place to be.’’ To which a buoyant Muñoz replied, ‘‘Mr. Vice-President, está en su casa’’ (You are in your house).1

Although set apart by his celebrity, Nixon was only one of approximately a quarter of a million U.S. citizens who annually made the trek to welcoming Puerto Rico in the late 1950s.2 The island had recently acquired a reputation for powdery beaches, crashing surf, luxurious hotels, and tastefully restored colonial streets and alleyways. Equally important, as Fidel Castro cast his shadow across the Caribbean, Puerto Rico stood out as an oasis of political stability. Commonwealth Puerto Rico, the advertisement read, was a postcolonial territory tutored in democratic capitalism by the United States and generously granted autonomy. It had forsworn the turmoil that swept much of the Third World and set out to raise itself by the bootstraps from poverty to prosperity inside of one generation.

Popular constructions of the island were based partly on tourist imaginations and partly on the commonwealth’s savvy public relations campaign. In reality, Puerto Rico still struggled to overcome the legacy of a half century of exploitative U.S. colonialism. Acquired by the United States in 1898 as a consequence of the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War, it had been awarded colonial status. Although the colonial government on occasion en

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