Why Is Washington Saying Very Little About Puerto Rico?

Puerto Ricans are crestfallen this week, walking around “con el moco caído” as they say. Governor Alejandro García Padilla announced that the island had finally run out of cash. In response, Washington just shrugged its shoulders.

Last Sunday the governor informed The New York Times that Puerto Rico’s $72 billion dollar debt was unpayable. The following day García Padilla laid out his plan to restructure the debt, produce a five-year budget, and create a non-partisan “junta fiscal” to guarantee that the government keeps its commitments no matter who is in power.

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Gov. Alejandro García Padilla (YouTube screen grab)

News of the governor’s plan spread like wildfire. Overnight, stateside reporters and commentators became Puerto Rico experts. Even USA Today, which rarely covers the Puerto Rican economy or politics, had something to say.

With all this press and the threat of the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history, Puerto Ricans expected Washington to respond. Except it didn’t.

The White House reiterated that there would be no bailout for Puerto Rico. It did endorse, however, pending Congressional legislation to enable Puerto Rico’s municipalities and government-owned corporations to restructure their debts under Chapter 9 federal bankruptcy law as allowed in all 50 states.

Major editorial boards rose in support of federal bankruptcy for Puerto Rico. “Pero del dicho al hecho hay un trecho.” Whether the White House will push for passage of legislation, which faces some stiff Republican opposition, remains to be seen.

Congress is for the most part indifferent to Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican Democratic congressional delegation on the mainland —consisting of Representatives Luis Gutiérrez, José Serrano, Nydia Velázquez— and Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative Pedro Pierluisi have been very outspoken. In addition, there has not been even a tweet from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus or the more conservative Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute, which makes one wonder what is the Latino agenda outside immigration.

Presidential candidates have been slightly more vocal than Congress.  Out of 14 Republican and five Democratic presidential candidates, only three have acknowledged the economic crisis.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who visited in April, supports Federal bankruptcy for Puerto Rico consistent with his pro-statehood position.  “In order for Puerto Rico to eventually become a state, it must begin by being treated as a state,” he said in April. This past week, when speaking with reporters in South Carolina, Bush added this:

I think if Puerto Rico can make a compelling case that they’re prepared to alter the social contract with their extraordinarily large number of state workers and in return for allowing for a reduction, you know, dealing with the debt load that’s unsustainable where they can start growing economically again, they’d have to do all three of those things at once then giving them that flexibility would be important. That’s why I’ve suggested it about a month ago. I think Puerto Rico has a responsibility now to come up with a plan that makes it serious, a serious plan that people could look at.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley took a step further by endorsing both Federal bankruptcy and health care equity for Puerto Rico, which has been shortchanged in Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare programs. The Democratic candidate may be trailing in the polls but he did do his homework on Puerto Rico.

Hilary Clinton, however, issued a tweet so vague that it could have applied to any debt-ridden nation in the world:

This is shocking coming from a former New York senator who represented the largest Puerto Rican community in the country and who won the Puerto Rico democratic primary by almost 70 percent in 2008.

Clearly Washington politicians, particularly those running for the highest office, do not want to be associated with a federal bailout of a U.S. territory. But there is more to the story than political prudence.

Washington’s passivity in the face of an emergency that impacts 3.6 million U.S. citizens is reminiscent of the recent Donald Trump debacle. Official Washington brushed aside Trump’s derogatory comments about immigrants. To them it was Trump being Trump. This silence fueled outrage in the Latino community, which ultimately grew so strong that Univision, NBC, and Macy’s severed business ties with Trump.

Official Washington is also brushing Puerto Rico aside. But this narrow thinking could have real consequences in the 2016 election. In 2012, Puerto Ricans emerged as the new swing voters in Florida. Obama won the state by less than 1% and attracted 86% of the Puerto Rican vote.

Puerto Rico is important to the almost 900,000 Puerto Ricans who live in Florida because the majority is island-born. They will not look kindly at candidates who are indifferent to Puerto Rico’s predicament.

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But to be taken seriously as voters in 2016 the 4.9 million Puerto Ricans residing in the 50 states, not just in Florida, need to do more now. They need to put their Boricua pride into action and demand that the Island’s needs be met. Of immediate concern is passage of federal bankruptcy legislation and equal treatment in federal health care programs. All it takes is phone calls to their two Senators and one Representative.

Whether it is by choice or necessity, the Puerto Rican diaspora is growing at an unprecedented rate.  Migration is fraying the socioeconomic fabric of the island. It is upsetting to all Puerto Ricans, particularly those who grew up in its heyday. But as the diaspora grows so does the island’s power. It is up to Boricuas to choose how to use it.

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Gretchen Sierra-Zorita is a public policy and advocacy specialist working on media diversity issues for the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. She is curator of Puerto Rico En Serio, an online community :dedicated to sharing news, information and opinions that contribute to the well-being of the Puerto Rican community and to the progress of Puerto Rico.”

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