The Unfortunate and Unpopular Reality of the Puerto Rican Debt Crisis

Now that the New York parade and the many regional festivals have passed, there’s one topic that’s dominating news about Puerto Rico. The debt crisis is threatening to cripple the island in a way it might never come back from, and politicians and economic experts alike are stomping their feet and shouting down each other’s plans to fix the dilemma. It’s an issue that’s dividing people of all ideologies – you know things are complicated when Obama, Ryan, Clinton and Trump ALL agree on one plan, while the U.S.’s only Socialist Senator and top conservative economic advisors agree on another. Most disconcerting about this muddled and increasingly tumultuous battlefield are the subjective narratives being pushed by all sides, including recycled rhetoric that borders on propaganda. One of the worst cases of the language spewed in these campaigns is the idea that is becoming ever more popular, of blaming Puerto Ricans for their misfortunes.

This reoccurring theme was originally aimed solely at the Puerto Rican government, and ostensibly still is for all intents and purposes, but has become quite transparently applied to the island’s 3.5 million residents, and their rather borderline nihilistic approach to politics and economics. This type of language is, of course, something we should be used to – it’s the same narrative put forward before, during, and even after Operation Bootstrap. The actual effects of that program are still debated today, whether it was ultimately beneficial or harmful, and was filled with the same finger-pointing and chest-beating we’re seeing now. I suspect that the ending will be the same as well, with nothing having been accomplished except driving Puerto Rico further in to a hole, upon which the residents will receive the rest of the blame yet again – and therein lies both the problem, and its root.

Let me preface what I’m about to say with that it should be clear that we are not going out of our way to be defenders the Puerto Rican government, either the legislative branches or the sitting Governor. I have had friends and family within the island’s government, including at least one blood relation, but I will not shy away from pointing out what has become glaringly obvious. Those holding political office in Puerto Rico continue setting a consistently ever-worsening precedent of self-interest, elitism, bigotry, and short-sighted decision making with each new cabinet change – but it was a precedent that was already old by the time the first actual Puerto Rican native took a political office while the island has been under U.S. control. A slew of Anglo-American civilian and military governors have taken administrative mastery over the colony, sometimes with rather productive results for certain sectors of the U.S., but with “mixed” results for the population of Puerto Rico – to put it very mildly.

Even the best-intended of these men often acted upon their own wants for the island, which is exactly how the centralized, government-controlled bank of Puerto Rico was created in the first place. Yet this is not a case to be dismissed as “failed progressive policies,” as some have tried to. Liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans – all have used Puerto Rico for their own ends, then cast blame on each other when things go poorly. When unemployment rises and businesses begin shutting down, everyone takes turns blaming either an unregulated free market or reckless government spending before shifting the accusations wholesale back onto Puerto Ricans. Both the fiscally conservative and liberal experiments in Puerto Rico have failed before they began, greatly benefiting only a select few every time, and the social experiments that have succeeded have often done so with disastrous results. There’s a worrying  (or, perhaps, infuriating) correlation between the two, tied to the amount of disregard for the well-being of the Puerto Rican people in either case.

There is no escaping the fact that for the 118 years it has lasted, the relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico has always been one-sided in the favor of the former. Current statistics have almost a quarter of every dollar produced by Puerto Rico going directly to the American mainland, and given the history between these countries these estimates could be overly conservative. For all the rhetoric concerning government intrusion coming from Republicans, few other states or territories have been subjected so continuously to such a brazenly parasitic relationship with the rest of the country. Yet despite this, it has been the House Republicans that have been shifting the most criticism onto Puerto Rico, and conservatives in general have attacked the island’s economy and internal politics both in the present and past.

The majority of past elected Governors of Puerto Rico may have been Democrats, but the current Governor‘s predecessor was and still is an ardent Republican. Despite his drastic tax cuts and claims of deficit slashing, upon his loss in the next election he left the governorship still with a massive deficit and a sharp spike in unemployment across the island. I don’t claim to be an economist, but the evidence shows clearly that this is not a matter of ideology. All the tax raising and tax cutting have done little to nothing for the actual Puerto Rican people, so that the only common thread between the parties here is their lack of foresight for the long-term well-being of the island. The Democratic Party, Republican Party, PPD, PNP, and the PIP all have favored short-sighted tactics for short-term political gains, and ALL have shown, repeatedly, that they either don’t know or don’t care what’s best for Puerto Rico as a whole.

While Republicans and conservative economists argue with Democrats and liberals about the supposed failure of “big government” policies in Puerto Rico, predatory hedge funds have been fighting behind the scenes to make sure they get a cut before everything goes to hell. The question of who owns Puerto’s Rico debt has a different answer depending on who you ask. In the course of doing further research for this writing, I’ve read several wildly contradicting ranges of percentage breakdowns. These claims are complicated further by the very nature of the market, as some of these bond investments have been thrown around into various mutual funds so that quite a few individual investors on the mainland have been dragged into the crisis as well.

This has worked in the favor of many of the less scrupulous of these hedge funds, as some have joined together to fund efforts portraying the governments in both San Juan and Washington, D.C., as forcing taxpayers to bail out Puerto Rico. They have taken advantage of the presence of island-residing bondholders to further this narrative to tug at Americans’ collective heartstrings. To be clear, there are many native Puerto Ricans invested in the San Juan government’s bonds. I have at least one relative that lost all her money in such investments and claims to be completely destitute because of it. I also know that she used her late American husband’s considerable fortune to invest in the first place. I’m not condemning her, but this speaks to the reality of many of the bondholders portrayed as “average Joe” Puerto Rico residents.

One such CNN story was appealing enough that even I was reconsidering my cynicism, but the illusion was quickly broken once they began revealing more details about the “average Joe” Puerto Ricans’ being profiled, namely their professions, locations, and especially the amount of they invested, which were all six to seven figures. That would be quite a bit of money for an “average Joe” mainland American to throw down on an unsure investment, but for a Commonwealth where it’s a struggle for most just to be able to live paycheck-to-paycheck, that’s a veritable fortune and a huge risk to boot. All the Puerto Ricans the campaign has chosen to profile as the main bondholders are, like my aforementioned relatives, part of the Puerto Rican upper-middle class, which of course most of the politicians they are fighting come from as well.

As we have alluded to here before, too often members of this segment of the population regard the rest with a rather elitist contempt, which I’ve been exposed to first-hand. I’ve listened to family that abandoned the island long ago wax philosophical about how dark-skinned Puerto Ricans and immigrant Dominicans are the cause of all Puerto Rico’s economic woes, similarly to how marginalized groups are blamed for crime and such in the U.S. and probably the rest of the world. One of the differences in Puerto Rico is the Old World, feudalistic mentality that still pervades society there just as it does in the rest of Latin America. The Spanish assigned class based on characteristics such as skin-color and ancestry, and made explicit policy decisions on how a person was treated based on these requirements. Blacks, Amerindians, and mixed peoples were not only socially restricted, but subjected directly to heavier taxation as well, all on the basis that they deserved it because of what they were.

Puerto Rico has not developed the same ideas of social mobility present in the U.S. (however complicated or skewed they are) because of this and portions of the population are often seen as inherently deviant. Thus, when parts of the upper-middle class, whether the government or private citizens, play around with the Commonwealth’s money it’s not likely to be seen as a societal disservice – it can be construed as their privilege to do so, and the burden of the rest to merely deal with the inevitable consequences. Despite the current government’s language, I have no doubt that many officials care little about the current crisis beyond maintaining their own salaries and nepotistic appointments. Here is part of the unfortunate reality we all face as Puerto Ricans – we are indeed often just as culpable in this long chain of oppression and negligence our island continues to be subjected to.

Congress has shown time and time again that, as a whole, they do not care much about Puerto Rico beyond gaining votes or creating inroads for businesses they’re personally connected to. The Puerto Rican legislature has shown that they don’t care much about the rest of the island beyond maintaining their power. And we Puerto Ricans on both the mainland and the island show we don’t care much beyond enjoying the beaches and dancing, and having the right to travel between both countries. These are sweeping generalizations, to be sure, but are all too easily applicable. I’ve met too many Puerto Ricans on the island that just want to live comfortable enough, and think moving north is a “Get-out-of-jail-free” card if things get too bad. I’ve also met too many Puerto Ricans on the mainland who couldn’t me tell what a single Governor had done in the past 10 years, but could name 10 beaches and bars off the top of their heads. And while all of us continue to ignore the reality in front of us, companies and wealthy tax dodgers from the U.S.come to Puerto Rico, make or save millions and bring it all back to the mainland after barely spending a cent on the island.

This crisis was inevitable, and it’s actually surprising it took so long for it to occur. If the current Governor had been in office during the recession, he would have likely done the same, unlike his predecessor who idolizes his allied American political party. This arrogance is typical of the Puerto Rican elite who have bought into the supposed autonomy and equality afforded under Commonwealth status. The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court broke that delusion, especially considering its swiftness. The fact that any financial giant could get away with saying they’re side of preventing a taxpayer bailout, especially after the controversy of 2008-09, to poor Americans is tragically comic. It’s downright infuriating that the party of fiscal responsibility and shrinking government is campaigning to keep up trust in government bonds even at our expense. This hypocrisy is just another symptom of the broken relationship we have, and the schizophrenic agenda regarding us – treating us as less equal than others – has culminated into this very situation. Make no mistake, though, this is a taste for what is to come for many in the rest of the  U.S., no matter what bill passes, but it will be Puerto Rico that suffers most.

The status quo will no longer be viable after this, and those who have abused it for their own ends will be thrust into the spotlight because of it. The U.S. can’t continue to label Puerto Rico autonomous without affording it actual authority, and it can’t continue to label it part of the Union without affording it the same rights and privileges that every other American citizen takes for granted. I’ve been anti-Statehood my whole life, but if it would guarantee the island actual support I would be at the front line of any campaign to push it. We cannot to continue pushing our ideological agendas into the mix when the island’s future is at stake. As it stands now, Puerto Rico is a Third World nation with First World amenities. Puerto Ricans on the island have become a new “separate but equal” class within the U.S., citizens beholden to different sets of rules from two governments. No one has been able to decide whether Puerto Rico is part of the United States or part of Latin America, and until that decision is made there will continue to be incidents like the debt crisis, wherein the federal and Puerto Rican government jockey for power with commercial interests.

Whether the island were to become a State or independent, or even if it remains a Commonwealth, the result as of right now will inevitably be the same. Another large migration, likely to dwarf the past exoduses, will arrive in the U.S. mainland. It will be composed of the poor at first, who will have to compete with the undocumented for unskilled labor positions. It will quickly include the middle class as well, as it has recently, who will then compete with the already struggling middle class professionals here for skilled jobs. We’ve already seen it happen, and it will keep happening. Puerto Ricans have little recourse but to uproot themselves to the mainland, where even with a pay cut they can work for better wages with more job security. It’s been known for at least a decade that the island’s economy does not work, and the reality is that even it’s done ostensibly well, it’s rarely worked in favor of the natives. The only thing that will stop it from happening again and again is if Puerto Rico gains real economic independence, real political power, and, above all, real unity among its constituents.

This is the often unpopular part of the reality for many Americans, including Puerto Ricans, that Puerto Rico is for all intents and purposes a separate nation. It has a different culture, different norms, and different routines. The same methods that might work in the mainland have not worked on the island. Worse, most of those efforts carried out in the past have always been part of someone else’s finite political agenda. Puerto Rico is not a playground for others to test out their stratagems, their products or their military ordinance. It is not a place to force-feed American-made goods, avoid mainland regulations, or cheat your taxes. It is its own country with three and a half million living human beings just trying to sustain themselves. They need to be “allowed” to have the ability and freedom to do so. It’s also important going forward that we will all admit our complicity in creating this air of apathy and fatalism concerning Puerto Rico.

I purposefully avoided dwelling on the financial details of the crisis, because as I said I’m not an economist. You can read below the words of people more qualified and more eloquent than I to come to your own conclusion. I will say that there is precedent for throwing out at least the interest of these outstanding debts, and I agree with many that the very nature of what the debts developed into makes them as a whole at least partially illegal – and the fault of both governments as well as the financial institutions that have cherry picked which laws to follow. Both sides have pushed forward arbitrary stipulations in their own favor, which only proves my point: until the political situation with Puerto Rico is resolved, the economic situation will always be in crisis. What Puerto Rico needs is not investment in the government, but investment – and trust – in its people. We need legitimate investors to make equitable deals and grow with our local companies and institutions. There is tremendous economic potential on the island, enough to keep the entire population self-sufficient and their fund-givers happy. There is enough arable land to feed the entire island, and then some, enough wind and sun power to make alternative energy a lucrative option, and if the Jones Act restrictions were to be lifted or at least modified, then the port of San Juan could very well make Puerto Rico the Singapore of the Caribbean. This might seem a far-off dream and even impossible considering current events, but I have faith that our island can one day get through this and make this all a reality. But they will need help to get there.

http://www.democracynow.org/2015/11/26/juan_gonzalez_on_how_puerto_ricos

https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/114/190/

https://www.newyorkfed.org/outreach-and-education/puerto-rico/2014/report-main.html

http://www.centennial-group.com/downloads/For%20Puerto%20Rico%20There%20is%20a%20Better%20Way.pdf