Dorado: A ‘Paradise’ of Inequities and Climate Emergency

A tour of the beaches in Dorado that show intense erosion reveals the marked contrast of rich and poor communities facing the Atlantic. While long-time residents are witnessing demographic and coastal changes that threaten their quality of life, the new residents of Dorado arrive attracted by economic incentives and by the possibility of enjoying a “paradise” that is sometimes not accessible to locals.

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Pocita Mameyal in Dorado, Puerto Rico. Photo by Eric Rojas | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Just over a mile of coastline separates Pocita Julio Barroso Valentín and Kikita Beach from the most exclusive beaches on the grounds of the Embassy Suites Hotel and the controlled access neighborhoods of the Dorado del Mar residential complex. All those beaches are in the Higuillar neighborhood in Dorado. “La Pocita” and Kikita Beach, located in the Mameyal sector, see their main access gate closed at 6 p.m., as dictated by a municipal ordinance that went into effect in 2018, after residents of the area demanded peace at night.

Some residences in the area known as “La Pocita” in the Mameyal sector are for sale for between $60,000 and $100,000, as I saw on property sales pages.

A cyclone fence with a green mesh defines the other reality, to the west of Mameyal, where the beaches of the Embassy Suites Hotel and Dorado del Mar are located. On that side of the fence, the houses are mostly above $600,000, and in nearby neighborhoods to the west the units sell for millions of dollars.

Bathers in neighborhoods with access control and those in Pocita Mameyal and Kikita Beach have something in common: sand erosion and the consequent shrinking in the size of their beaches.

Kikita Beach, in Dorado.
Photo by Eric Rojas | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

In the case of Kikita, the sea has been consistently moving in. Some people heave rocks from their backyards to control the expansion of coastal erosion. It is a fairly common practice in Puerto Rico, from places with high-cost or rental apartments like Rincón and urban coastal areas in Condado and Ocean Park, in San Juan, to poor communities, like Barrio Obrero in Arecibo. But this artificial filler doesn’t solve anything. It can even worsen the erosion problem, as it is a temporary process that can cause erosion to the sides, as marine geologist Maritza Barreto has warned.

Mameyal residents living near Kikita had already denounced the dangers of this practice prior to Hurricane María. “It has accelerated coastal erosion. They said the waves break on the rocks and wash away the sand,” the Community-Based Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Dorado in 2017 stated.

A tour of the streets surrounding Kikita Beach lets me see the large number of apartments in the area with rental ads in English.

Community of Mameyal, in Dorado.
Photo by Eric Rojas | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

“I can confirm that many of these apartments appear on the Airbnb page,” says Bianca Planas, 27, a resident of the Espinosa neighborhood in Dorado.

A visit to the Airbnb page shows apartments for rent in Mameyal, some at $99 for an overnight stay. Many are precisely located in the areas most threatened by coastal erosion in Dorado, according to the results for 2018 published in The Post-María Beach Assessment. How long will these rental units last in the current scenario of the climate crisis and its impact on the Caribbean?

“The people who take those kinds of actions [heave rocks at the shore in Dorado] have the money and the ability to get out of there at any time. They have other properties to go to in case the sea continues to advance there. But the people of the community, who have lived in Mameyal for years, don’t have that guarantee. They have no other option,” says Planas, who has lived in Dorado for 22 years.

La Pocita Julio Barroso Valentín is known as Pocita Mameyal, in Dorado.
Photo by Eric Rojas | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

The municipality’s population is about 35,879 people, according to the 2020 Census. In 2019 it was reported that the per capita income there was $16,876 and that 32.7% of its population lived in poverty.

The luxury hospital for medical tourism

After leaving Mameyal, we went to the Espinosa neighborhood, to the south of the municipality. On the way, a new building stands out. Although it looks ready to open in the coming months, its ribbon-cutting has been postponed due to the pandemic, a spokeswoman for PRISA Group, the company responsible for the project’s construction, tells me. The medical center’s opening is now scheduled for February 2022, the communications officer of the Dorado municipal government, Lynnette Moreno Caldero, told me.

“That’s going to be the hospital for the rich,” Planas says confidently.

When the Government of Puerto Rico announced its construction in May 2019, it was announced that it would be the first hospital in Puerto Rico with all private rooms, with an investment of $107 million. “It will have 104 beds, divided into eight intensive care units, two neonatal intensive care units, 79 private rooms and 15 suites,” La Fortaleza said at the time.

The new health facility will be called Dorado Beach Health. It will offer intensive emergency services and urgent care, orthopedics, oncology, vascular surgery, and sports medicine. In addition, it will have neurology, cardiology, infectious diseases, gastroenterology, dermatology, nephrology and reconstructive and aesthetic surgeries departments and services.

“Dorado doesn’t have that many clinics, besides the Diagnostic and Treatment Center (CDT, in Spanish) [Dorado Community Health]. The CDT’s conditions are inhumane. The place is run down. The air you breathe smells like fungus. The people who are treated there participate in the [Government Health] Reform. In the case of that new hospital, I had never seen such a rush to open a clinic [in Dorado] until the Americans drawn by Act 22 began to arrive,” added Planas, who is also a doctoral student in psychology.

Moreno Caldero told me that the mayor of the city knows about the precarious conditions of the CDT, but that it is run by the Department of Health, for which he has long demanded that agency pass that responsibility on to him, something that hasn’t happened.

Act 22 of 2012 was passed with the purpose of attracting new foreign investors to Puerto Rico so that they could get tax exemptions. The statute helped establish the island as a tax haven where these foreign entrepreneurs are only required to live in Puerto Rico for half the year.

PRISA Group, owned by Federico Stubbe, is the same developer of the Dorado Beach Hotel and the Ritz Carlton Reserve Dorado. The health center is the result of an alliance between PRISA, Triple-S health insurer, the Doctors’ Center Hospital, and the John Hopkins Hospital, which since 2010 began doing market studies to determine the viability of this project that seeks to make Dorado the epicenter of medical tourism in Puerto Rico.

How accessible would that hospital be for families living below the poverty line that were seen earlier that day on Mameyal’s Central Street? What do the people of Mameyal think about the erosion at Kikita, the surge in Airbnbs, and the arrival of foreign residents who settle in Puerto Rico to benefit from the tax exemptions that are possible thanks to statutes such as Act 22 of 2012?

For the municipality, El Dorado Beach Health is one of its new presentation letters. 

Municipal officer Eliezer González talks to me, from the Municipal Office for Emergency Management’s official bus, about the hospital as if it were a trophy 

“That hospital is going to be the most modern of all the islands in the Caribbean,” says González, pointing to the gray, white, and beige building.

The tour with the official takes us to visit some beaches that are exposed to accelerated coastal erosion. The journey continued to the Dorado Reef complex, on the border with Vega Alta, to look at what remains of the beach in that area. The erosion has advanced, González tells me as he points out the problem of the loss of sand.

As we leave the area, Route 693, named Juan “Chi Chi” Rodríguez in honor of the famous Puerto Rican golfer, takes us to the Dorado Country Estates residential complex.

“Behind that wall is Logan Paul’s multi-million-dollar house,” says González, referring to the influencer and boxer who moved from California to Puerto Rico attracted by the laws that exempt him from paying most of the taxes required in the United States.

Unlike other developments we had access to, the city official was unable to enter Dorado Country Estates, which is where Paul resides. There, property sales start at $3 million, as advertised in real estate pages.

“You can’t go there because you need a special card to gain access,” González told me.

In May of this year, the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER, in Spanish) investigated a video that showed Logan and his brother Jake riding carts on a beach in that residential complex during the turtle nesting season. Logan Paul defended himself claiming that it was a private beach. All of Puerto Rico’s beaches are in the public domain.

Images posted on Instagram show the Paul brothers fooling around at night on the beach next to their exclusive neighborhood.

Next stop: the Dorado public beach. There is no restriction to get in. Due to erosion, the areas of sand accumulation that I once saw on that beach are barely there. The loss of sand has contributed to the increase in excavating of areas on the shore. The roots of the palm trees are increasingly left without the protection of coastal sediment.

To the east of the beach, the Ojo del Buey reserve shows how the area — popularly known for the Cocolía Festival — continues to lose ground because of the rise in sea level and the impact caused by the mouth of the La Plata River. The reserve, which the DNER manages, also has an elevated coastal erosion problem like that in areas near Kikita Beach.

El Ojo del Buey, in Kikita Beach, Dorado.
Photo by
Eric Rojas | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Returning to Mameyal

It’s Wednesday and the sun is heating up at the La Ventana de Kikita restaurant on Extensión Kennedy Street, in Mameyal.

Neighbors of La Ventana de Kikita identify Millie Carrasco, 56, as the sector’s historical memory. She has lived in Mameyal her entire life. She has witnessed the transformations of that northern Puerto Rico coast.

“I’ve seen how in recent years the sea has expanded the space it occupies. People didn’t stop building. They kept building. There used to be a small beach that the community used to bathe, but we can’t anymore because it doesn’t have sand and it can’t be used,” she tells me.

Regarding the short-term rental of homes through the Airbnb platform, she said this dynamic has altered the coexistence of those who permanently reside in Mameyal, especially those who live closer to the coast.

“I have seen people who have come to buy several plots of land at the same time, especially those houses near the coast. They have their sights set on tourism. They are almost always looking for it on the coast. In no time at all, I’ve seen a high volume of those rental apartments. I didn’t know anything about Airbnb. I thought that people rented more in Cabo Rojo and San Juan,” she explains.

Kikita Beach, in Dorado.
Photo by Eric Rojas | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

“It has robbed the residents of their peace. When you hear people walking on the street after the curfew, it isn’t the residents, it’s Airbnb,” she says.

The spokeswoman for the municipality of Dorado recognized, when I visited the mayor’s office, the noise problem and its connection with the Airbnb platform and said they “are working on the issue,” without providing further details.

“At some point, the sea will continue to advance. The water batters the coast so constantly, that it ultimately breaks the rocks. When the ‘Swells of the Dead’ come [between October and November], that sea comes into the road because it doesn’t have anything to stop it,” she said about the swells caused by the cold fronts north of the Atlantic Ocean.

Two minutes by car from Carrasco’s home, is the Rayting Minimarket grocery store, on Mameyal’s Central Street. The business is run by the popular former universal wrestling champion, Ray González.

With his forehead full of the scars from his legendary fights with Carlitos Colón and Savio Vega on the Pepín Cestero arenastadium in Bayamón, González gives a serious look at each customer who comes into the premises.

Outside the grocery store, a man named Chú says that he has lived in Mameyal for 54 years. “I live on this side, where I’m safe because I’m not close to the beach, but there’s a problem in that it is getting close to the apartments there,” he said.

“Whoever has the money to buy houses do so, but the government has to help those of us who live here, in the neighborhood,” Chú said under the hot sun at 3:30 p.m.

Inside his grocery store, Ray González continues to serve customers.

“Would that be all?” González asked a customer as he charged him for a loaf of bread and a can of corned beef.

The CPI asked the wrestler if he knew where the gym owned by John Danaher, the famous jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts coach who moved to Dorado, is located, and if he knew about the case of influencer Logan Paul.

“I’m finding out now. I don’t know who they are. They sound like those sports in which they throw in the towel,” González said with a laugh.

Rafael R. Díaz Torres is a member of Report for America.

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