April 24, 2018

Commentary: Puerto Rico needs leaders who can really lead

By Manuel R. De Juan von Waldkirch, Orlando Sentinel

Puerto Rico’s situation reminds me of the movie “Cast Away.” After struggling to survive, the castaway awakes to intermittent sounds: thuds. Minutes go by. Thud! He fears there is someone else on the island. He yells, “Who’s there?” No answer. Later, a coconut falls next to him. Thud!

Events in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria struck in September 2017 are deafening thuds. Today, thousands remain without power. Thud! The Whitefish scandal. Thud! A massive exodus of island residents relocating stateside. Thud!

Recovery progress is happening, but the island’s grand challenges remain intact. To the leaders of Puerto Rico: How many more thuds will it take to spring you into action for bold collectively engineered initiatives?

“Cast Away” is a movie about survival, confronting fear, and fundamental life choices. The castaway has two stark options: Either to live his remaining years alone talking to himself, or to cast off into the open sea to regain his whole self. The year 2018 confronts Puerto Rico’s leaders with such monumental choices. Only together, through true multisector collaboration, can we overcome this test, endure and progress.

The people of Puerto Rico need leaders who really lead. We need courageous individuals who answer the late Israeli President Shimon Peres’ call to allow no room for small dreams. We need leaders who are allergic to mediocrity and are corruption-intolerant, humble leaders who respect and listen before they speak, leaders who feel their greatest duty is to inspire and enable the actions of others, and to ensure a pipeline of future leaders.

In the movie “Gladiator,” the aging emperor Marcus Aurelius says to his trusted general Maximus: “There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish … it was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter.”

Having given his all to duty, honor and the glory of Rome, Maximus prevails. We could use such thoughts, devotion and valor in Puerto Rico today. Or are these only the stuff of fiction?

Make haste, leaders. Fulfill your duty. Together, make us believe in the dream that was once Puerto Rico.

We at PuertoRicoNEXT, an action-oriented think tank, envision an island in which differences among its leaders are set aside to handle this crisis. We imagine a community that eschews any “Hatfields versus McCoys” attitude and restrains those who would continue to use political partisanship to gain — or retain — power.

We envision families who realize that life in Puerto Rico changed forever on Sept. 20, 2017, and that we all must adjust. We see individuals who universally adopt an enterprising attitude; and show self-reliance, lifelong learning and resilience; and who live every day the bedrock Puerto Rican values of hard work, devotion to family, respect for our heritage and unending joy.

There may be storms that can’t be weathered, but Maria is not one of them. We can overcome this crisis and prevail. We are stronger now. Nothing is as potent at the thrust of sheer willpower. It’s time to lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Anthony Bourdain was absolutely right when he stated: “Puerto Rico is, of course, so easy to love.”

Manuel R. De Juan von Waldkirch of Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, heads PuertoRicoNEXT, an action-oriented, nonpartisan think tank.