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How the Zika Narrative About Puerto Rico Explains US Colonialism

 "School Begins. Uncle Sam (to his new class in Civilization): Now, children, you've got to learn these lessons whether you want to or not! But just take a look at the class ahead of you, and remember that, in a little while, you will feel as glad to be here as they are!" Originally published on p. 8-9 of the January 25, 1899 issue of Puck magazine. By Louis Dalrymple (1866-1905) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Uncle Sam schools the newest recruits to the US imperial fold in the art of “civilization.” Originally published under the title “School Begins” in the January 25, 1899 issue of Puck magazine. By Louis Dalrymple (1866-1905) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The natives are in “chaos.” The “war against Zika” has been “a failure.” A governor’s adviser left his position “in disgust,” and went to vacation in Spain. Disease is rampant. “Some” has been done, “sometimes effectively.” Mosquitoes “breed” in old tires. There are no “cutting-edge plans” to avert the chaos. As “a last resort” the CDC comes to the rescue with the insecticide naled: but, oh, wait, naled is toxic. The natives “rebelled” against the use of naled, and have accused the US of “colonialism” (yes, in quotes!). Ignorant, rebellious, pregnant women do not want to use repellent to protect their babies. What “a horror story.”

This narrative dates, not from the period of the 1898 Spanish-American War, during which the United States invaded and colonized Puerto Rico, together with Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam. This narrative, rather, forms part of a story published in the July 30, 2016 edition of the New York Times. It immediately brought to mind those political cartoons that appeared during the Spanish-American War, when the US media played a pivotal role in presenting Uncle Sam as the savior of the half-naked, infantile, natives of the diseased and poverty-stricken tropics.

“In the NYT story, about the Zika epidemic in Puerto Rico, the imperial gaze is clear. The story also contradicts itself.”

In the NYT story, about the Zika epidemic in Puerto Rico, the imperial gaze is clear. The story also contradicts itself: for if no one is doing anything on the island, why is the fact that women are taking measures against the Zika virus, and the possibility of having babies with microcephaly, cited as one of the reasons for the decrease in the birth rate?

Following the publication of this article, a worried US president Barack Obama issued a broadcast warning Puerto Ricans that they must take the Zika virus seriously. The governor of the island, Alejando García Padilla, expressed support for the President’s message, but the secretary of Health, Ana Ríus Armendáriz, said she felt “scolded.” And in fact we all should have felt scolded. Among other critics, the mayor of the city of Bayamón, Ramón Luis Rivera—who is in favor of Puerto Rico changing its political status from territory to federated statesaid that Obama should also take the island’s colonial status seriously, as well as release 73-year-old political prisoner Oscar López Rivera, who has been imprisoned in the United States for 35 years.

Many other countries in the world deal with tropical diseases. Most recently and famously, Brazil is hosting the Olympics amid a Zika epidemic. But these countries are rarely treated in this heavy-handed manner, perhaps because they are autonomous states.

“Puerto Rico has fought successfully against tropical diseases for decades. Dengue has been endemic in the country since the 1960s, and more recently we have grappled with chikungunya, and now Zika. These diseases that seem so outrageous and unique to people in the United States have long been part of our daily lives.”

Puerto Rico has fought successfully against tropical diseases for decades. Dengue has been endemic in the country since the 1960s, and more recently we have grappled with chikungunya, and now Zika, among others. These diseases that seem so outrageous and unique to people in the United States have long been part of our daily lives. Both government agencies and citizens are well informed about them. There have been education campaigns, cleaning brigades, and extensive media coverage. And, yes, life goes on. People continue to work, love, live, struggle, and resist, not only the Zika virus, but something much more devastating: over a 100 years of colonialism and its many consequences.

Most recently, Puerto Rico is resisting yet another manifestation of colonialism, in the form of the US-imposed fiscal oversight board that will control many decisions of the government.

Those who live on this Caribbean island are well informed and aware, not helpless infants in need of being rescued, much less scolded. What we need, at the very least, and at this critical moment in our history, is media coverage that is accurate and demonstrates local awareness—stories that treat Puerto Rico and its people with respect, dignity, and humanity.

  • Paco Cabron

    Mosquitos no importa si te sientes insultado por tío Sam,
    We have a public health crisis.
    There will be time to explore fragile feelings after the virus is under control.

  • mohamed hagi

    big power continents arent able to cure such epedemic diseases kkkkkkkkkkk surprise

  • Gabriel Sierra

    Y que te ha enseñado la historia acerca de como el gobierno federal hace las cosas aqui? A ellos solo le importa que el Zika no pase para alla a traves de sus turistas. Hasta ahora no conozco a nadie que le haya dado.

    • GC

      Pues fíjate que yo sí conozco a mucha gente que le ha dado, incluyéndome. Es una enfermedad cuyos síntomas son relativamente suaves y el cual solo presenta síntomas en uno de cada cuatro casos. El peligro mayor es hacia los fetos en desarrollo y la posibilidad de que uno desarrolle el síndrome guillain barré, el cual es bastante terrible.

  • Alberto Marty

    WOW! Te felicito Firu por tan buen escrito!

  • Benjamin Dito

    Right On!
    Puerto Rico has evolved into a candyland for US, well-connected corporate contractors. A play ground for Monsanto. The “fodderland” to dispose of increasingly unpopular chemicals illegal in the european union and whose use is growing unpopular in the US. The Junta Fiscal will replace PR’s local corrupt officials with corrupt officials put into place by Corporate America. They seek to reclaim the debt caused by corruption they for years fertilized, with even less democratic and transparent measures. Makes perfect sense when you look at the dysfunctional system in the States today. Has the Junta Fiscal established their minimum
    gift amount yet? Imagine what local tallent that has survived this cider press could do if government actually supported it’s people! RESPECT for Puerto Ricans – #LosHijosdeAtabey, #whereisthezikaPR

  • AdamNeira

    ATENCIÓN :

    Naled, Nootkatone o Bacillus Thuringiensis Israelensis “BTI” no funcionarán en Puerto Rico!

    Pero los métodos de Fred Soper funcionarán !

    http://gladwell.com/the-mosquito-killer/

    Obama’s remarks about Zika+ in Puerto Rico are seriously lacking. See my counsel in Spanish & English here.

    http://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/locales/nota/obamanocometanerroreslaamenazaporzikaesreal-2226110/

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  • elxa po

    Puerto Rico is not resisting another manifestation of “colonialism” but instead resisting scientific consensus. The argument of the author that PR has “successfully” fought tropical diseases for decades is not a guarantee that it will do so effectively in the future. The evidence is, rather clearly, that is not fighting this one effectively in large measure influenced by the now dominant narrative that the author here espouses. The author does a very poor service to Puerto Rico and its people by ignoring the scientific evidence that shows the following: Zika is spreading rapidly in Puerto Rico; Naled is effective if sprayed at the concentrations recommended by CDC; Cuba has sprayed house to house with Naled using the Cuban Army (imagine the furor in Puerto Rico if a similar action was undertaken!); the connection between Zyka and microcephalia is well established scientifically and accepted by the United Nations; and, finally, Puerto Rico has no other effective alternatives better than spraying. None have been shown or presented. What the author here does is simply to engage in demagogic rhetoric attempting to make connections to colonialism where none exist. CDC is the international go-to agency when it comes to this issues, not the opinions of uninformed ideologues like Ms Shookoh Valle. What a shame to find articles like this in the 21st century!

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