The island recently withstood several earthquakes, hundreds of aftershocks, and governmental turmoil. It needs progressive change in policy from the U.S.
[Originally published in The Hill February 18, 2020]
It’s been such a rocky start to the year 2020 in Puerto Rico that hundreds of locals decided to tear it all up and start from scratch at the end of January. Crammed into La Placita de Santurce, an outdoor San Juan party district, revelers enjoyed salsa bands and fireworks, hoping to erase the memories of several 5.0 or more earthquakes and hundreds of aftershocks, as well as fresh evidence of Puerto Rico government corruption and U.S. federal government neglect.
The earthquakes and aftershocks, most of which emanated from an area just south of Ponce, the island’s second-biggest city, knocked out power throughout the island for several days and left thousands homeless and sleeping outdoors in tents and makeshift shelters. Governor Wanda Vásquez, installed as the result of a major corruption scandal last summer, was slow to respond to the crisis. She focused instead on photo ops with victims, making tone-deaf statements saying the people living in the tent shelters were “happy and have what they need.”
Those comments were made just a few days after a local activist who goes by the name El León Fiscalizador livestreamed on Facebook his discovery of a 43,000 square-foot government warehouse in the south of Puerto Rico containing piles of unused disaster aid that had been sitting there since 2017’s disastrous Hurricane María. The ensuing furor briefly revived a series of nightly protests at La Fortaleza, the Governor’s residence in Old San Juan. They featured celebrity Puerto Rican rapper Residente, as well as the resilient Colectiva Feminista, pot-banging outbursts called caserolazos, and a stream of pepper spray from the PRPD to disperse the crowds at midnight.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported in mid-January that out of $36 billion in Congressionally approved aid to be administered by Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Puerto Rico had only received $1.5 billion of it. President Trump has long complained about corruption in Puerto Rico’s government and has offered to loosen restrictions on disbursing the aid in exchange for lowering wages paid to workers hired by disaster-relief contractors to below $15 an hour. Just last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called for an investigation into whether the Trump administration’s delay in disbursing these funds violated the same law that the Government Accountability Office felt President Trump broke when conducting the negotiations with the president of the Ukraine.
Also last week, a plan to restructure $35 billion in General Obligation bond debtowed by Puerto Rico’s government and agencies — cutting it to about $11 billion — was hailed by the U.S.-imposed Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) as a victory.
“The new agreement…gets the island much closer to ending bankruptcy and to the beginning of true economic recovery,” said FOMB executive Natalie Jaresko, whose last job was restructuring Ukraine’s debt early last decade.
But while the figures show General Obligation debt would be reduced by 70 percent, many Puerto Ricans are not convinced it’s a lifesaver.
Last Thursday, a letter from over 50 organizations based in Puerto Rico and the U.S., including several labor unions and mainland Puerto Rican advocacy groups, rejected the deal. They claimed that the deal would likely force another bankruptcy process in a few years; would require paying back part of the debt that the FOMB’s own report declared was illegally emitted; and would cut worker’s pensions and burden Puerto Ricans with indirect taxation, further making economic recovery virtually impossible. They say a study by economists Pablo Gluzmann, Martín Guzmán and Joseph Stiglitz has repeatedly criticized austerity measures imposed by the board as antithetical to economic recovery and development, and recommends the debt be cut by 85 percent.
In response to all of this adversity, there are many stories to be told about Puerto Rican resilience, and their use of “auto-gestión” or self-efforting. For instance, caravans of citizens made their way south to deliver supplies for those forced into homelessness by the recent seismic activity — which by the way, is still creating aftershocks.
Still, during this election year, there is much to be gained from direct engagement in local politics on the island, as well as national politics in the U.S.
With both the pro-statehood and pro-Commonwealth parties staggering from their ineffectual efforts and roles in both creating the debt crisis and responding to the natural disasters of Hurricane María and last month’s earthquakes, new political parties like Victoria Ciudadana (Citizens Victory) are fielding a slate of candidates. Yet, while these substantial local strides are encouraging, Puerto Rico needs more.
A recent trip to Puerto Rico by a group of House lawmakers, including Steny Hoyer, Nydia Velásquez, Carolyn Maloney, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, intended to draw attention to the Trump administration’s neglect. But that should be the beginning of a serious Democratic commitment to the plight of the island colony. With Democrats presenting themselves as an alternative to the many ways Trumpism has waged a campaign of discriminatory policies against Latinos, African Americans, women and LGBTQ+ people, a progressive change in policy toward Puerto Rico must become a prominent part of the party platform.
I’ve always had great faith and belief in the stubborn self-reliance of the people of Puerto Rico and their ability to make change despite the failings of local and federal government. But the island is in such desperate conditions — from infrastructure to health care to education to structural poverty — that it needs action from Washington to address much of the damage the government has helped to create. Puerto Rico needs debt relief and a real chance for economic recovery and growth. That entails a major reassessment of its colonial status and the responsibility of the U.S. in helping Puerto Rico get to where it wants to go.