By Marinda Hollar
I am a Boise State University student who went to Puerto Rico on an exchange program for a short year with the goal of improving my Spanish, learning about political processes in another cultural environment, and well, to enjoy a year in a tropical Caribbean paradise. It didn’t take long before I absolutely fell in love with the island; the beaches are so unbelievably beautiful, the people are so incredibly welcoming, the culture so vibrant and full of life. It certainly lives up to the its nickname—The Island of Enchantment. On any given corner on any given day, one can hear music floating through the air: it always seems to be either an infectious salsa rhythm or the pumping bass of the latest reggaeton song, (the local mix of reggae / rap that seems to be the music of choice for many young people here) and undoubtedly, somebody is dancing or singing or refreshing themselves with a nice cold beer while they share time with friends or family, or as is often the case, with both. The culture is so oriented in family, in sharing, in passing quality time with loved ones—whether it be at the beach, seated next to the river in the jungle, or even just hanging out at home. It is truly a delightful place to be.
However, I quickly also realized that Puerto Rico has its fair share of problems. They are currently faced with a stifling $73 billion debt, brought about by an unfortunate mix of unwise spending habits by the local government including corrupt politicians, failed privatization attempts and a plethora of unjust financial policies imposed by the United States government.
The most recent law forced upon the Puerto Rican people by the U.S. government with the supposed intention of helping Puerto Rico pull itself out of debt is the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act (or PROMESA, a terribly frustrating pun which I will explain shortly). This law stipulates that a team of seven individuals, nominated by the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. federal government, in effect take control of the Puerto Rican government in order to restructure and repay the debt. They must approve the local government’s budget for the fiscal year, and they must additionally sign off on every law passed to ensure that it doesn’t worsen the crisis. This Oversight Board has the power to make demands of the Puerto Rican government, and has already imposed significant austerity manners.
It is important to note that the only purpose of the Board is to pull the country out of debt. It is not necessarily charged with the well-being of the Puerto Rican people. In fact, one could argue that there is motivation to continue to entrench the island in even more debt, as the president of the Board currently own at least $265,000 in Puerto Rican bonds, sparking debate over a possible conflict of interest, as an increase in debt would mean an increase in his wealth.
This oversight board is an uncomfortable concept. I want you to imagine this from the Puerto Rican perspective: giving up even more of your local government’s sovereignty, rendering your governor (the highest government office on the island) a mere puppet, with the country that has repeatedly mistreated and abused your people as the puppeteer. Putting your country’s future in the hands of a group of people chosen by a government that has a history of squeezing every last cent out of your people by passing such legislature as the Jones Act, which stipulates that Puerto Rico can only import goods from the United States, on a U.S.-based boat with a U.S.-baed crew, increasing the price of pretty much everything and doubling the federal taxes that Puerto Ricans have to pay. A government that makes a habit of sending your country’s young men and women to the most dangerous fronts during times of war so that your people are those who are dying en masse, and not the white soldiers. A government that has conducted experiments testing new methods of contraception on the women of your countryside in the name of not endangering their own people (even though people born in Puerto Rico are, technically, U.S. citizens). A government that has in the past gone so far as to make your own flag, the pride of the nation, illegal in public arenas. A government that is not representative of your people, your culture, your interests, or even your well-being. This is the government that chose the members of the group that basically have fiscal control of the island.
I know that I would be bitter. No, more than that—outraged. And I would most definitely be extremely dubious in regards to the true goals of the Oversight and Management Board. The PROMESA (the Spanish word for promise) from the U.S. government to “help the Puerto Rican people” by taking complete control of the local government has already been broken. In the short four months that the Board has had control of the islands finances, they have approved measures such as:
- Increasing property taxes,
- Increasing court fees,
- Increasing traffic ticket prices,
- A new internet tax,
- Increasing the mandatory minimum car insurance,
- Increasing the already tangled web of permits that one needs to drive a motor vehicle in PR,
- Increasing the number of permits required for construction projects, and increasing the cost of said permits,
- Cutting credits for projects that attract tourists (the island’s main source of income),
- Cutting credits to revitalize urban living centers,
- Cutting credits for investments that would develop the local economy, and the cut that personally pains me the most,
- Cutting $603 million dollars of funding from the only public university system on the island, La Universidad de Puerto Rico.
The current governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo “Ricky” Rosselló, has said that the Oversight Management Board requested that $603 million be cut from some part of the Puerto Rican government’s budget. He has also said that other than the university system, there is simply no other source of funding, except for the public health program. However, he also refuses to release an official list of how the public funds are being spent, and refuses to have the massive $73 billion-dollar debt audited by an economic board to determine how much of it is “legal debt” (used on projects that served to benefit the citizens of Puerto Rico), and how much of it is “illegal debt” (exactly the opposite: used for corrupt purposes, often in the form of useless projects, i.e. “bridges to nowhere,”, etc. This kind of debt does not have to be repaid, as the people should not be punished for bad decisions made by their government). The debt that Puerto Rico has accumulated over the years, legal and otherwise, is so substantial that the annual interest on the debt has reached $6 billion. With a population of 3.4 million people on the island, that means that every man, woman, and child would pay about $1,500 yearly, just to cover the annual interest. This amount becomes much more significant when one considers that the average annual income for a Puerto Rican is just $15,000. This number is bound to decrease even further if the latest round of proposed cuts by the oversight management board are approved. Without access to a quality, affordable education, the cycle of poverty on the island is bound to continue downward.
Keep in mind, the country has been in crisis mode for a while now, and the university has already seen about $300 million in cuts in the last three years. The resources are already stretched thin, with overly crowded classrooms in need of upkeep, professors’ benefits and salaries that have already taken substantial hits, and funding for research at an all-time low. The result of these proposed cuts would be disastrous: it has been stipulated that 8 of the 11 public campuses in the UPR system would be forced to permanently close their doors, leaving all the students registered in those unlucky eight branches of the university to scramble to either try to enroll in one of the three universities that remain (which will overnight become extremely crowded, and also have to take cost-reducing measures to be able to continue), or give up on receiving a higher education and settle for trying to find work in the struggling Puerto Rican economy. By the way, those that choose (or are forced, by lack of resources to pay the higher tuition) to take the latter path will potentially soon only receive a minimum salary of $4.25 hourly if they are under 25 years of age, compared to the continental U.S.’s $7.25 national minimum, another change proposed by the Oversight Board. It is also very possible that the UPR would lose its accreditation if the proposed cuts are approved, because the education will simply be unacceptable. In this case, all the time and money that the students currently enrolled will have been for nothing, as other universities and employers don’t accept credits earned in a non-accredited organization.
The options are grim for students who are already struggling to pay the relatively low tuition. The country has an astounding 46% of the population that lives below the poverty level, that is about twice as poor as the poorest state in the U.S., and faced with these new cuts to social services and increases in expenses, the whole island has troubling times ahead. The Oversight Management Board is not thinking about the future of the Puerto Rican people—they are tying their hands behind their back, blindfolding them, kicking them in the gut and asking why they don’t get up and fight. The U.S. government seems to make a pattern of setting Puerto Rico up for failure and then blaming them when the inevitable happens. They are unable to declare bankruptcy (like all U.S. states have the ability to do) because of their “commonwealth” status, (codename for colony, which is illegal according to a resolution 1514 of the United Nations- “All peoples have an inalienable right to complete freedom, the exercise of their sovereignty and the integrity of their national territory, [the UN] Solemnly proclaims the necessity of bringing to a speedy and unconditional end colonialism in all its forms and manifestations”). And they are equally unable to declare bankruptcy as a country, because they are technically not an independent nation and are therefore considered “dependent” on the U.S. for financial support.
Now is when I make my plea to you. Before I came here on exchange, I had no idea what was going on in Puerto Rico. I am a Political Science and Spanish student at Boise State University, and I like to think of myself as a well-informed person. I make it a habit to read the news daily, but I had no idea about the status of Puerto Rico. My knowledge was basically, “They’re almost like a state, right?”. And from what I have gathered based on the reactions of my family, friends and university colleagues back in the states, many U.S. citizens share that same level of very limited information. Puerto Rican news is simply not broadcasted in the states, and I don’t remember ever learning anything about this small beautiful island in any part of my public-school education. Because of the unfortunate collective ignorance of the American people, the U.S. government basically has free reign to continue to pass oppressive policies against the Puerto Rican people, and the country will continue to be at the mercy of their great dictator.
Unless you do something. I truly believe in the American system. Further, I truly believe that if we can rally enough people to call their senators and tell them that this issue will not be silenced any longer, we can make real change. I propose that we raise our voices, and demand that we treat Puerto Rican (technically fellow American) citizens with the respect and decency that they deserve, do away with the law PROMESA and all the false promises that accompany it, and most urgently, most immediately, demand that the $603 million not be cut from the university, because a nation without education is a nation that will be trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and an inability to bring about change.
During my time here, I have made some of the most solid friendships of my life. I have met people that are truly amazing. Their struggles to attend university despite the fact that their family is barely scraping by are truly awe-inspiring, accepting loans and graduating with thousands of dollars in student debt in order to get an education and have a shot at a better life for themselves and their families. The UPR system educates thousands of students every year that are often recruited by U.S. companies because it produces such driven and competent workers. If the funding is cut, many students won’t be able to afford to travel to other parts of the island to study, as the only campuses that will be able to remain open are on the far east and west sides of the island, and they would either have to pay for an apartment near campus or pay the approximately $40 in gas daily in order to be able to go to class. Please, help me bring attention to this issue so that the people of Puerto Rico that are trying to better their situation are able to do just that. Please, help me to put pressure on our government to stop these disastrous cuts from being made. I thank you so much for your time, and sincerely ask that you spend five more minutes to have a conversation with your local representative to show that this issue is important to their constituents.
Below I have written a brief statement that nicely summarizes the main points that the Puerto Rican people want YOU, as an American, to tell your state representative that the people here don’t have. I know it can be intimidating to pick up the phone and call, but it truly is the most effective way to make your voice heard in these troubling times. Below I have also included a list of senators and representatives on the Natural Resources subcommittee, which oversees all things Puerto Rico, that you can call to apply pressure. Please, an extra five minutes of your time has the power to make all the difference for the beautiful island, and the American citizens, of Puerto Rico.
Hello, my name is ___________ and I am a constituent of (CITY, STATE, ZIPCODE) and I am calling to talk about the situation in Puerto Rico. I don’t need a response. I believe that:
- Before any further austerity measures are taken, it is necessary that the public debt be audited, to determine how much of the debt is actually legal, and therefore, necessary to repay.
- The Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) unfairly imposes an undemocratic regime on the people of Puerto Rico and its government.
- It is also trying to implement policies that will cripple the economy and the people of Puerto Rico, most notably cutting the $603 million from the UPR system. This would kill the university system as it is known here and prevent many people from studying. It must be stopped. The university needs that funding and the island needs the university.
The American people have a sense of justice and this repression of the people that are supposedly under our care will not stand. Please, raise your voice, help the people of Puerto Rico avoid the looming educational crisis that will ironically be brought about by the group of people sent to improve the economic crisis on the island. Please, let your government know that false promises are NOT tolerated in our political system, and that we demand better.
Bury, Chris. “Is This 1917 Law Suffocating Puerto Rico’s Economy?” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, 14 Aug. 2015. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.
“Directory of Representatives.” United States House of Representatives. US House of Representatives, n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.
Pr, Telemundo. “Obama Nombra Integrantes De La Junta De Control Fiscal.” Telemundo Puerto Rico. Telemundo Puerto Rico, 31 Aug. 2016. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.
Soledad Dávila Calero, María. “Professors Argue Against Further Cuts to UPR Budget.” Caribbean Business. Caribbean Business, 10 Mar. 2017.
“The United Nations and Decolonization.” United Nations. United Nations, 1 Dec. 1960. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.