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Op-Ed: After multiple crises…Can Puerto Rico change?

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The election is over. Our anxiety levels remain high with either elation or depression. Nonetheless, we expect that the collective decision at the ballot box will spark much-needed changes to our social and economic circumstances. We all hope that something better can come from a fundamentally adversative process that has clear winners and losers.  

Regardless of the outcome, this political exercise does little to produce the real paradigmatic changes which Puerto Rico needs to overcome its most pressing socio-economic problems and crises. I believe that what we have to do is to engage in an exercise to discuss and coincide on how to change our culture. 

But wait, what do you mean by culture? I use the explanation by Danish researcher Geert Hofstede who defined culture as “the collective programming of the mind.” In other words, the “unwritten rules of the social game.” The way we organize our social interactions is the product of unwritten accepted norms that we have customarily maintained and seldom question. 

Lawrence E. Harrison and the late Samuel Huntington, editors of the book Culture Matters, defined culture in “subjective terms as the values, beliefs, orientations, and underlying assumptions prevalent among people in society.” The book sought to “examine the role that cultural values play in compelling political, social and economic development.” Although this highly controversial book (when it came out in 2000) asserted that societies endure major cultural changes as a result of crises or major trauma.  

If that is the case, Puerto Rico is in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, endured an economic and social crisis for the past 14 years, and suffered the dual trauma of the earthquakes and Hurricanes Irma and María. 

You would think that this chilling panorama should suffice to produce significant changes in our culture. But really…Has anything changed? What specifically needs to change? 

Back in 2008, during the last economic meltdown, a conference sponsored by the Harvard-MIT Puerto Rican Caucus titled “Restoring Economic Growth in Puerto Rico” a top executive of the pharmaceutical industry indicated that:

…we must change our complacent mindset in order to make way for a competitive culture. We have lost our ability to compete, so we have to build that back. This is one of the things we need to bring back to Puerto Rico — the true belief that we can compete in a global market.

I do agree with that 2008 valuation that we have to identify and act upon those fundamentals that need to change and transform our “complacent mindset. All of us in Puerto Rico have to change our value structure, mindset, and attitudes to achieve real prosperity. I believe that paradigmatic changes in our culture could push us into a more inclusive, productive, prosperous, and sustainable society.

For the sake of argument and to discuss the cultural changes that our society might consider, we need to identify an appropriate framework as a reference. The strongest framework to identify changes comes also from Geert Hofstede’s 6 cultural dimensions.

His comprehensive research, which started in 1967, has been used as the theoretical framework for such academic fields as cross-cultural psychology, international business management, public relations, and intercultural communication. The dimensions represent preferences that can be used to distinguish one country over the other, based on the following dimensions:

•    Power Distance – the measure in which individuals and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.

•    Uncertainty Avoidance – a society’s capacity to tolerate, embrace or avert an unexpected or uncertain event.

•    Individualism vs. Collectivism – related to the degree to which people in society values its incorporation into groups.

•    Masculinity vs. Femininity – related to the separation/differences between feminine and masculine roles.

•    Long Term vs. Short Term Orientation – refers to every society’s collective inclination to value the future, the present or the past.

•    Indulgence vs. Restraint – the way society values enjoyment versus control of basic human desires.

Hofstede’s longitudinal work provides an idea as to what a particular society values. To illustrate my point the reader can access the following website to compare countries.

Figure 1-Puerto Rico

Figure 1 above illustrates how Puerto Rico fares in the six cultural dimensions. These dimensions can be used as a reference to compare our island with other countries. 

Author Jeffrey Quiñones is a Puerto Rico-based public affairs and homeland security professional.

Ideally, we could compare ourselves with other islands, like with three of the Four Asian Tigers; Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. These islands have been referenced as benchmarks that Puerto Rico could emulate. 

Of course, two of the three islands are smaller than Puerto Rico (Singapore and Hong Kong) but all three have more population than Puerto Rico. Some business publications have speculated that Puerto Rico could be the Singapore of the Caribbean. Others have made the academic exercise of comparing our island to Taiwan, although Puerto Rico and Hong Kong may be the most alike in the political sphere.  

But such comparisons do not necessarily help. It is important for all of us in Puerto Rico to reason and converse to identify what needs to change, decide why it needs to change and how do we collectively go about changing it. 

For example, the recovery discussions have centered on how resilient our infrastructure and businesses should be (uncertainty avoidance), and how we should plan our social and economic future (long term orientation). Gender roles continue to be part of the education and economic debate (masculinity vs. femininity) and inequality continue to be part of the political and economic prosperity tussle (power distance). The pandemic has put into question whether we should protect individual rights or strive to give primacy to our collective needs. And maybe we should start talking as to whether we should be more restrained (indulgence) in our enjoyment of the good things in life.  

Even if we do not engage in such a dialogue, I believe that our current situation and how we decide to approach the current crisis will certainly force changes. Are we ready for them?

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This story was written by our staff based on a press release.
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