If you click to watch the video above, you’ll be able to see yet another forum about the Puerto Rico Debt Crisis, held this past Wednesday at the Colegio de Abogados in San Juan, an institution I first became aware of when it was under attack by the Luis Fortuño administration in 2011 because they dared to criticize his early imposition of austerity and heavy handed police tactics on union and university demonstrators. The panel was diverse, including attorney and talk-radio host Carlos Díaz Olivo, former Governor Anibal Acevedo-Vilá, and the perceptive economist Argeo Quiñones Pérez. It was an interesting dialogue, with some tension provided by Quiñones Pérez’s insistence that, as much as it may be clear that there is a problem of colonialism, Puerto Rico has its share of colonial collaborators both in government and the fiscal sector, that have played a starring role in creating the lamentable and chaotic situation faced by the Puerto Rican people today.
That situation is currently marked by a deadline, July 1, upon which Puerto Rico is prepared to default on a $2 billion debt payment, which will ostensibly set off a litigious frenzy among bondholders against the various municipalities and instrumentalities that owe the debt, and possibly create chaos regarding the government’s ability to maintain liquidity and provide services. The July 1st deadline is also the reason why, after so much delay, there is a great urgency for the Senate to take up HR 5728, otherwise known as the cynically named PROMESA bill. Rather than being a bill of “promise” that could “save” Puerto Rico, it’s a crude colonial instrument of control imposed with the same kind of impunity that Angela Merkel used when she told Greece’s premier Alexis Tsipras that there was “no alternative” to their creditor’s offer, a phrase that he then repeated to his parliament a month later.
While Quiñones Pérez made several excellent points about the unwillingness of Puerto Rico’s government and economists to reform anything about the capital-extraction machine put into place by American multinationals, and how the imposition of the board could pave the way to make the island a laboratory for a new era of neoliberal experimentation not seen since Milton Friedman’s “boys” invaded Chile with the blessings of Hillary Clinton’s buddy Henry Kissinger, it was one of the island’s prominent ex-elected officials, Acevedo-Vilá, who made some of the evening’s most dramatic remarks. Because of his privileged position, he was allowed to enter the Belly of the Beast, in this case the Department of the Treasury, and be confronted with a kind of passive-aggressive blackmail threat.
Acevedo Vilá, governor from 2004-2008, seemed to be relishing the opportunity to speak because two years ago he published a 53-page essay (available, of course in Kindle edition) called Toward the Economic Refounding of Puerto Rico and its Commonwealth Status that he says predicted exactly where we’re at today. He said he wrote the treatise because he felt the debt problem was a chance for Puerto Rico to enter into negotiation with the US with leverage that would not only settle the debt issue but begin a process to reformulate the unincorporated territory’s relationship with its colonial master. “There’s an old country saying,” he told the gathering at the Colegio, “If you owe the bank $10,000 and you can’t pay, you have a problem. But if you owe the bank $150 million and you can’t pay, the bank has a problem.”
This idea of shared responsibility is one that I’ve been trying to highlight in my recent writings about the debt crisis, but according to Acevedo Vilá, the current García Padilla administration “waited too long to admit” that the debt was unplayable, and that, as well as the irresponsible 2014 $3.5 billion bond sale to mostly hedge and vulture funds, is what has lost Puerto Rico its opportunity to have leverage in confronting Washington. What could have been a negotiation has become a mano dura mandate from a House committee filled with raging hardcore austerity Republicans.
Yet, as Acevedo Vilá tells it, the John Flemings and Raúl Labradors of the world were only playing their expected roles. The real mandate for PROMESA was coming from somewhere else. [Remarks quoted here can be heard, in Spanish, at about 1:10:00 into the video above.] “The force behind PROMESA is the Department of the Treasury and the White House,” he announced in a booming, menacing tone. “I experienced this in a meeting two weeks ago. Antonio Weiss called for me and [former] Governor Hernández Colón to come. It was the toughest meeting of my life.”
This is the moment where, according to Acevedo Vilá, Weiss executed the same hard sell that he has been, with varying intensity, in almost every public appearance he’s made regarding the necessity to pass PROMESA. “Weiss basically tells us,” says Acevedo Vilá, “if this bill fails, it’s going to be your fault. You will be the ones responsible if Puerto Rico dies of hunger.”
Without hesitation, Acevedo Vilá says, he and Hernández Colón declared that “the price you’re asking us to pay, to give up the little democracy that we have, is way too high.” Weiss responded in conciliatory fashion, or with “intellectual honesty,” the way Acevedo Vilá sarcastically puts it, that it bothered him that PROMESA didn’t have economic development measures, and didn’t adequately address the looming health care crisis with Medicare/Medicaid entitlement parity with the US, which is what all US citizens should have. This is what Weiss had been asking for since the beginning, but it was excised by the House Republicans.
Acevedo Vilá then says that he was perturbed that in the PROMESA bill the phrase “at the sole discretion of the board” is used “about 100 times,” to which, according to Acevedo Vilá, Weiss responds that the language is there for legal reasons, to satisfy requirements that the bill be constitutional. But Acevedo Vilá insists that the language is really about invoking the territorial clause to assure that the US has plenary powers permitting them to impose the unconstitutional powers that the board would have by being able to implement both legislative and executive functions at the same time, using un-elected board members.
He then goes on to speculate that the Supreme Court decisions handed down later that week, which essentially re-state that Puerto Rico is a colonial territory of the US and has no special autonomous powers–belying the argument the US used to satisfy requirements of the UN Decolonization Committee in 1953–were “coordinated,” just in time for PROMESA. But while you’re deciding whether or not you believe in such synchronicity, Acevedo Vilá drops this bombshell:
“Antonio Weiss admitted to me that if we go to default they would be sued as well.”
So then, according to Acevedo Vilá, the same insistence that the US is using to exert colonial powers over Puerto Rico–saying it has plenary power over territories, and re-establishing without a doubt that Puerto Rico is a territory, might expose it to litigation from bondholders. Acevedo Vilá has been talking about this for at least two years, when he began referring to an obscure Supreme Court case about Guam called Limtiaco v. Camacho.
The case involved a bond emission that Guam, which is also an unincorporated territory of the US made, that exceeded the legal limit. The recently released report by the Puerto Rico government mandated debt audit commission focused on possible illegalities involving debt emissions that may have violated Puerto Rico’s constitution, a legal document that Guam doesn’t even have. The Guam Attorney General, Alicia Limtiaco, refused to approve the emission and was sued by the Governor, Felix Camacho, who won. Limtiaco lost on appeal, but the Supreme Court heard the case and found in favor of the Attorney General.
The decision made by the court included these lines: “…the Governor mistakenly argues that we owe deference to the Guam Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Organic Act…The debt limitation provision protects both Guamanians and the US from the potential consequences of territorial insolvency. Thus this case is not a matter of purely local concern.”
It’s possible that Acevedo Vilá is grandstanding here with his extraordinary claim that Weiss was in agreement of his interpretation of this case, which seems to refer to the Organic Act in general, even though there have been several Organic Acts written specifically for different territories, including Guam. Yet the idea that the Treasury Department, fully encouraged by the White House, has so strongly pushed this idea as the only solution at this time begs for an ulterior motive. After all, so many years of economic crisis in Puerto Rico–no urgency from the executive branch. So little meaningful legislation passing Congress at all, for that matter, because of Republican obstructionism. But now, one that is set up for quick passage, a triumph of bipartisanship?
Weiss and the White House have all along been giving lip service to the inequities in health care, the problem of massive underfunding of government pension plans (an additional $40 billion or so in debt) and the “bad look” of a fiscal oversight board ruling a thinly disguised colony. But whether it be a simple matter of radical Republican control of the House, or the appearance of a bailout, the executive branch and the Treasury Department have shown a lack of will to insist on these provisions, and have caved in to protect the only donors that matter, the financial community, from which both Lew and Weiss were sprung. The message is, we did what we could but time has run out and Wall Street is the timekeeper.
Acevedo Vilá himself surely has an axe to grind considering he lost the governorship to Fortuño in the first place in 2008 because of a fairly suspicious Department of Justice investigation at the height of the George W Bush administration’s US Attorney scandal, from which he was exonerated in March 2009. It also might explain the strong anti-PROMESA stance by Senator Robert Meléndez, who tried to block the appointment of the US Attorney that eventually indicted Acevedo Vilá, current US Attorney in Puerto Rico Rosa Emilia Rodríguez.
Yet despite the ex-Governor’s motivations, or his possible thirst for the spotlight, or even a kind of grandiose “I told you so” moment, Acevedo Vilá’s remarks shed light on the possibility of a manufactured urgency to the moment. Would the US be subject to litigation from bondholders? What would be the extent of disaster during the weeks following July 1st on the island if no bill were passed? Is there a possibility that with additional pressure created by the findings of the debt audit commission, perhaps recruiting international support through a renewed denunciation of Puerto Rico’s colonial status, or even that still to be realized idea of a mass movement organized on the island and in the US can provide some of that lost bargaining leverage?
The Senate supposedly will be deciding on PROMESA this coming week. There is a small hope for amendments to make the bill, as Acevedo Vilá says, “a little bit less anti-democratic.” But even with incremental changes, the very idea of an unelected fiscal oversight board forcing balanced budgets, free to privatize government assets at will, and dismissing thousands of government workers is something the majority of Puerto Ricans will not stand for. July 1st is just five days away, and maybe this time we’re finally going to know which way the wind is gonna blow.