By Hector Figueroa, president of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union. First published as a New York Times op-ed.
It’s been more than a week since I’ve had any word in New York from my 93-year-old father in Puerto Rico. He lives in Coamo, a town in the path of the worst storm to hit the island since 1928. My experience has been shared by millions of Puerto Ricans in the diaspora since Hurricane Maria wreaked its havoc on Sept. 20.
The so-called natural disaster wiped out the deteriorating infrastructure of the entire commonwealth, destroying homes and roads, and leaving Puerto Rico without electricity. Estimates are that it will take months to make the grid fully functional again. The loss of communications has meant no news at all from the more remote communities like Coamo, which is also my hometown.
This wasn’t just nature’s work. Another type of storm had been pounding the island long before last week. With no real representation in Washington, Puerto Rico has always been subject to the whims of stateside politicians unaccountable to the island’s people. More than half a century ago, tax breaks lured industry from the mainland to Puerto Rico, but in recent decades those advantages were yanked back. That set the stage for vulture hedge funds to swoop into the vacuum, but left hospitals, schools, electrical and communications grids too underfunded and fragile to weather a Category 4 hurricane.
The immediate cause of the humanitarian crisis we’re witnessing now was a one-two punch by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. But the seeds for it were sown by a public debt crisis that has made life harder and harder for Puerto Ricans in recent years. The island tried to meet draconian debt payments by making disastrous cuts to public services. Those measures pushed Puerto Ricans out of work and into poverty. By 2015, 46.1% of the population was living under the poverty line, including about 60% of the island’s children. The governor at the time, Alejandro García Padilla, declared the debt unpayable and began defaulting on debt payments.
The cruelly named Promesa law (“promesa” means “promise” in Spanish) passed by Congress last year was supposed to resolve the debt crisis and right Puerto Rico’s economy. But any meaningful recovery for Puerto Rican families remains a distant hope. The commonwealth’s tight budget has made life on the island impossible for hundreds of thousands of families. They migrated to the mainland; in Central Florida, they were arriving daily by the hundreds before hurricane season.
Then came Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Immediate needs on the island include search and rescue, getting communications back up and clearing roads to get goods and help to people who need it. Beyond that, though, Puerto Rico needs Congress to help it recover from the devastation wrought by economic strategies that have failed the island for decades.
Congress and the Trump administration cannot hide behind the Financial Oversight Board created by Promesa — a semi-colonial entity that in effect controls Puerto Rico’s future. To undo the damage done by years of neglect and abuse by corporations that strip-mined profits out of Puerto Rico with federal blessing, Congress must act to create conditions for a sustainable economy.
That plan must begin with the collapsing health system. Puerto Rico is in urgent need of the $295 million in Medicaid funding that Congress approved in the spring, and additional funds to rebuild a system that is putting some of the country’s sickest, poorest and most vulnerable citizens at risk. Congress must also make an exception to the Jones Act for this and future emergencies, so that ships with supplies can go directly to the island instead of being forced to make port in the mainland United States first. And whatever emergency assistance the Federal Emergency Management Agency sends must come with no strings attached.
It’s time we faced facts about Puerto Rico’s debt: as former Governor Padilla said, it’s unpayable. The only thing Promesa has done for the people of Puerto Rico is put a temporary stay on claims from bondholders and other creditors. Even as he acknowledged the disaster, President Trump reminded people on Monday that the island, “which was already suffering from broken infrastructure and massive debt, is in deep trouble.”
It would be immoral to insist that before Puerto Ricans can rebuild their homes, hospitals, schools and roads, they must pay back this onerous debt. Instead, repayment must be postponed, maybe even eliminated. The banks that have benefited from the debt must take their own losses and let people come first.
Already, the vultures have been circling. Even as Maria hit Puerto Rico, hedge fund creditors were filing motions in court to further their claims to be repaid — sparing no thought for need for rescue, recovery and rebuilding in the coming months.
A good model for recovery and moving forward is the Marshall Plan, which Washington passed into law after World War II to help rebuild the economies of Western Europe, restoring confidence and prosperity for generations.
In the past few years, Puerto Ricans like me across the United States have come together to support our families still on the island, and to demand an end to the cuts that have made life harder and harder for our parents, our brothers and sisters. We will send help to them and our communities, but we must also defend them in the States, by resisting any measures from Washington that will make matters worse.
As the president of a union that represents thousands of Puerto Ricans along the East Coast — from Boston to New York to Florida — I will push our congressional representatives to extend the moratorium on the debt service and create a comprehensive plan to get the island back on its feet.
In the past, terrible storms like the one in 1928 set Puerto Rico back. I hope we can use this opportunity to make changes that will leave the island more resilient.
As I await news from my family, I think about the long road back to normality ahead of us. And I hope our fellow Americans will stand in solidarity with us and demand lasting relief from the crisis we face today.
All we really need, like the tropical forests crippled by the storm, is an opportunity to grow again, in a sustainable and more equitable way.