Friday, August 26, 2011

Puerto Rico Business Development – Lessons from the Basque Experience Lesson 2 – The Role of Culture and Identity in Economic Development

We just came back from France where we visited my brother Fernando at Les Tapies, a French phrase that we understand stands for “smuggled against” the mountain. This is an appropriate name for this small hamlet of six stone buildings in the middle of the mountainous Ardeche region some two hours southwest of Lyon. With great patience, perseverance and love, Fernando has over 35 years gradually purchased, rebuilt, and rustically integrated old farmhouses and barns originally belonging to three families going back to the 17th century without changing the original footprints or the architectural characteristics of the complex built from local stones. Fernando was the host for the Gonzalez Vizcarrondo traditional bi-annual outing of brothers and sisters, nephews and grandchildren, in laws and significant others (two years ago we were the host at our Vermont vacation resort). Thirty family members attended and my family made up 14 of the total. After the one week outing we scheduled another 6 days with three of our four children and 5 of our 7 grandchildren visiting two cities in this southeastern portion of France – Annecy and Lyon.

During this eleven day stay, there was a wonderful rounding out of the stonework experience. There was also the opportunity to bring to mind the role of culture and identity in economic development which was to be the topic of my second article in connection with the Basque experience. Fernando recruited my grandchildren Rafi and Ale the very next morning after our arrival and kept them engaged throughout the week constructing a wall serving as a safety railing on the new covered patio built over what had been a small storage area. Choosing each stone, chiseling some of them to the form that would fit, and mortaring the stones in place was a very slow process. At one point, a part of the wall that had just been put in place was torn down and rebuilt when my nephew Sebastian convinced his father after some thirty minutes of deliberation and measurements that a particular large stone would look much better. Fernando commented at one point that this stonework allowed him to appreciate what had been done in the past and to  feel that he was putting in place stones that would be seen by others for Lord only knows how long.

The last thing we did prior to returning home from France was to visit the Gallo Roman Theater overlooking the old parts of Lyon built in 15 B.C. The theater could seat some 12,000 persons and originally had a second story sitting area. As I looked at the huge stones in what was the street running alongside the theater, as well as the stones that made up the theater and other surrounding buildings, I could picture someone like Fernando choosing, transporting, chiseling and putting in place the stones that have lasted 2,026 years thus far!

Les Tapies, Annecy and Lyon ensure that the past is effectively preserved and appropriately exhibited.  This is not only aesthetically pleasing, but economically important, which brings us to the Basque experience as described in Eva Llorens’ June 2nd Caribbean Business article.  Former Basque Country President Juan José Ibarretxe is quoted as emphasizing the need to preserve the local identity, “…the design of public policies [for economic development] must be based on five elements. The first is an emphasis on preserving local identity….”   Quoting from the article, “While he stressed the importance of competing in the global economy, he warned about the need to protect local identity as a first step to going global.”  

My prior article on the Basque experience covering education mentions Ricardo Alegría who did so much for Puerto Rican culture.  There were many articles on him the days after his death regarding his roles in anthropology, archaeology, music, folklore, and art, but none that I found pointed out the importance of what he did as part of economic development.

Culture creates a local identity which creates self worth and hopefully unity of purpose, something that Luis Muñoz Marín and Luis Ferré were able to create that we unfortunately have lost along the way. Culture helps distinguish a society and thereby makes it unique and interesting to others. Whether the person is a tourist who visits us, a businessperson who deals with us, or a potential outside investor of capital or knowledge considering living with us, our uniqueness as a society as manifested by our common traits and the preservation and effective exhibition of the natural, historical, architectural, and artistic elements that are unique to Puerto Rico is to a great extent what makes us attractive.

When I think of stonework structures in Puerto Rico, El Morro and Juan Ponce de Leon’s Caparra home come to mind. El Morro is well persevered and a popular destination for the local population as well as vistors, but Juan Ponce de Leon’s site is visited by very few persons. I have lived in three different homes all located less than a mile from the site during more than 50 years and just visited it this week for the first time.

Caparra was the first Spanish capital in Puerto Rico (then called San Juan Bautista) constructed by Puerto Rico’s first Spanish Governor, Juan Ponce de Leon, in 1509.  Caparra was a village (Villa de Caparra) with homes, commercial buildings, church, plaza and Juan Ponce de Leon’s s home and fortress, that also served as the government and commercial center to exploit gold and agriculture. Ten years later (Juan Ponce de Leon had moved on to Florida in 1513), the capital was transferred to a more secure and less marshy area in what is now San Juan.

Interestingly, according to the brochure handed out at the museum, the name Caparra comes from the ancient roman village in Cáceres, Spain known as the Caparra Ruins. Thus, the remnants of my neighboring 16th century Caparra stone structure just visited closes full circle the previous Les Tapies and Lyon stonework experience.

One can see the footprint of the stone home relocated on a nice piece of property, and the cozy museum has the artefacts found in the archeological excavations of the Caparra village sadly buried under what is now Kennedy Avenue. There was an attempt to have the Avenue avoid these ruins which I assume was led by Ricardo Alegría, but the fight was lost. The signs are in Spanish and few people, especially tourists and students, visit the site that one can enjoy for free. It is sad to see that we are not taking advantage of so much historical, cultural and economic potential. We no longer have Ricardo Alegría and so we need to institutionalize as a top priority of our overall economic development policy the strengthening of our local identity and culture following the strong recommendations of Mr. Ibarretxe.