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Too soon to party? San Juan pushes ahead with street festival despite aftershocks

Jim Wyss, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Defying earthquakes along with the governor and the Catholic Church, the city of San Juan said it will hold its annual raucous festival this week that draws hundreds of thousands onto the narrow streets of Old San Juan.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz said Monday that the San Sebastian Street Festival will not be postponed despite concerns that aftershocks from last week's magnitude 6.4 earthquake might lead to panic.

Cruz said the event -- which will run from Thursday to Sunday -- is one of the economic motors of the island and canceling it would only compound Puerto Rico's pain.

"Of course I'm worried, but if we shut down the country we're not going to have the resources we need to recover," she said during a news conference. "The country's economy cannot collapse. We cannot let that be the next disaster that occurs."

The annual event draws thousands of local and international tourists who come to listen to music and drink on the cobbled streets of the historic center.

But Cruz has been under pressure to pull the plug on the party, or at least postpone it. On Saturday, Gov. Wanda Vazquez said she was "recommending" that the celebrations be delayed, saying citizen safety should be everyone's "top priority." San Juan Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves also said that Cruz should consider postponing the festival.

But Cruz suggested that politics was at play during a time when she and Vazquez are both running for the governor's seat in November. Cruz questioned why she was being told to cancel her signature event but officials weren't asking pop star Ricky Martin to suspend his shows Feb. 7-9 at the coliseum, and the church wasn't planning on canceling its San Sebastian religious procession on Sunday.

"We can't close the country for some people and not close it for others," she said. "How can they ask me to shut down the San Sebastian Street Party and not shut down the coliseum? And I love Ricky Martin."

The debate over whether it's time to party or pray for the victims of the earthquakes runs deeper than San Sebastian.

While the earthquakes and damage have been concentrated in the south, the private sector has groused that the media coverage makes it look like the entire island is a disaster zone. Hotel owners in San Juan say cancellations are skyrocketing. And at least one business convention and one big-budget film shoot have been postponed.

Over the weekend, Discover Puerto Rico, the island's promotion agency, sent out a map showing the earthquake zone -- and reminding the world that the island "continues to be open for business."

The campaign was savaged on social media.

"Puerto Rico is not open for business. All efforts should be directed to helping all affected individuals," was one of the milder responses on Twitter. "People traveling to Puerto Rico should come to help, not have pina coladas while there are families sleeping under the stars. Charlatanes."

Brad Dean, the CEO of Discover Puerto Rico, said the campaign was aimed at outsiders who might be under the impression that the entire island was out of commission and didn't realize that tourist attractions like Old San Juan, the El Yunque rainforest and the beaches of the north were virtually unscathed.

And while he's sensitive to the island's suffering, he said that visitors and tourism are integral to its recovery.

"We are doing our best to minimize the economic damage and help those in need," he said. "We are trying to limit the impact that mother nature might have on our economy."


Tourism is one of the motors of the U.S. territory, representing about 6.5% of the local GDP. Up until the earthquakes, Puerto Rico was on track to have a record-breaking year, Dean said. The island hosted more than 4 million visitors in 2019 and held more than 197 conferences and business events during the first three quarters of 2019, the largest number in five years.

The earthquakes come as Puerto Rico was already staggering under a decade-long recession, deep debt and a disastrous 2017 hurricane season. And local municipalities are starving for the tax revenue that tourism generates, Dean said.

"Given the fragile fiscal situation of the island, the tourism sector has never been more important than it is now," he said.

Puerto Rico's earthquakes began in earnest on Dec. 28 and peaked with a Jan. 7 "main shock" -- a magnitude 6.4 that toppled buildings, left one dead and has caused more than $110 million in damage. (A second death that authorities had initially attributed to an aftershock was reclassified as a death due to "natural causes.")

But the continual shakes and tremors have left the island with jangled nerves.

Brenda Mendez Quinones runs a coffee shop in Old San Juan and loves the San Sebastian Street festival, but she thinks it needs to be delayed. She said just a few days ago, a mild aftershock sent people running and screaming out of a local store. The combination of drunken crowds, narrow streets and tremors worries her.

"This party brings 300,000 people onto the street," she said. "If there's a single joker who says something like 'it's shaking' people are going to be in a panic. And where are they going to go?"

Cruz is trying to blunt criticism that she's promoting a party amid the island's pain. On Monday she announced that she will be turning the Roberto Clemente Baseball Stadium into an evacuation center where people from the hard-hit south can seek refuge. She's also channeling help from the Clinton Foundation, Sean Penn's CORE organization and the cities of Chicago and New York to the victims.

Cruz also said that extra security measures would be in place to guarantee safety at the event. But canceling the festivities entirely would simply reinforce the trauma -- reinforce the idea that Puerto Rico is broken.

Already, more than 900 musicians and 200 dancers have been confirmed for the festival, and there are seven cruise ships scheduled to dock for the event.

"We are living in a new reality," Cruz said of the aftershocks. "But we have to keep moving forward. Nobody knows how long this will last."

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