What One Puerto Rican Activist Told Judge About Debt Restructuring Case

Jan 16, 2019
5:31 PM

On the day when a court hearing for restructuring Puerto Rico’s debt began, activist Julio López Varona was one of the people who testified in from Judge Laura Taylor-Swain, who is overseeing the hearing. Here is what López Varona said on Wednesday:

From: Julio López Varona
Co-Director of Community Dignity Campaigns, Center for Popular Democracy

To: Laura Taylor Swain
Re: Opposition to proposed COFINA Restructuring Deal

Thank you for the opportunity to present our concerns today. My name is Julio López Varona. I am Director of Dignity Campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) and the coordinator of the Hedge Clippers campaign in Puerto Rico.

Over the past year, CPD has worked with our partners in Florida, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Nevada to support newly arrived hurricane refugees. During this time, our partners have engaged thousands of newly arrived Puerto Ricans, connecting them with services and advocating for policies that will allow Puerto Ricans to go back to the island or resettle in the United States.

In our work with the stateside Puerto Rican community, we’ve learned the extent to which Puerto Rico’s diaspora has been kept in the dark, mostly due to exceedingly complex and inaccessible language and proceedings. But make no mistake, we all care about what happens in this court today.

Today, a handful of people must carry the weight of speaking on behalf of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have been and will be directly hurt by COFINA, Puerto Rico’s debt generally, and this plan of adjustment specifically So we take this opportunity, five minutes before the irreversible start of a 40-year sentence, to introduce you to just two of the thousands of families who have been pushed out of their homeland and into economic exile for lack of basic services, employment opportunities, or a simple roof over their heads in the wake of hurricanes Irma, María, and COFINA, but that continue to organize, fight, and inspire others to improve their lot, and won’t give up on their dream to return to an improved and welcoming Puerto Rico.

In New York we met Brenda Suárez: At 41 years old, the abysmal response to and near absent recovery from Hurricane María forced her to move from her hometown of Vega Baja, Puerto Rico to New York City, along with her 39 year-old brother and her 81 year-old grandmother. Brenda and her family spent six months in a Manhattan FEMA shelter, and have spent the last eight months bouncing around New York City’s shelter system. Three jobs are not enough to afford her and her family a stable home, but this is the sacrifice Brenda makes to provide proper care for her family. You see, Brenda’s brother has a mental disability and her grandmother has Alzheimer’s. Neither of them has access to proper care in Puerto Rico’s public health system, and Brenda’s former private-sector managerial job didn’t provide health benefits or pay enough to afford health insurance out of pocket.

Let us take a minute to remember María “Betzy” Santiago Burgos. Betzy fled to Florida after the hurricane. Her home was damaged, and power and water were still out across the island, but she was fleeing from her husband, whose abuse had become intolerable after the hurricane and she had nowhere else to feel safe. At 43 years old, Betzy took up a construction job in Kissimmee to provide for her 12 year-old son and 14 year-old daughter. On May 3, 2018, both children would witness their mother’s murder at the hands of a man who tried to take advantage of her desperate housing situation in Central Florida

These are but two stories of families we have connected and worked with in the diaspora. But there are thousands more:

  • In Pennsylvania we heard from families that had failed to get access to housing and food because they did not speak English and couldn’t apply for public welfare programs.
  • In Connecticut, we worked with and heard of families fleeing from the ruins left by decades of infrastructure neglect and laid bare by a Category 5 hurricane, had to grapple with record- breaking winters, the monthly threat of eviction from their FEMA shelters, hunger, unemployment due to language barriers or disabilities. This, to them, was a more tolerable situation than what awaited them upon their return to Puerto Rico.

The one thing these families —and so any others in the diaspora— made clear was their love for their country and hope that someday they would come back. Sixteen months later, this hope is slowly fading into the distance. Many families displaced in the states are still living with relatives as their homes remain covered in blue tarps instead of a roof. Others hesitate to return as they see a rising crime wave, schools and hospitals closing, and the decay of basic infrastructure.

Sadly, we can’t see a light at the end of this tunnel. Over the last year, we have seen a government and Oversight (“Fiscal Control”) Board pushing for increased austerity and privatization to accommodate deals like these. Today we come before you to advocate for a better deal for Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico and in the diaspora.

Our research with Hedge Clippers has revealed who stands to gain the most from this deal. The winners here, today, are not the people of Puerto Rico, but a handful of hedge funds and investment firms that bought the debt for pennies on the dollar once disaster struck, and are now set to make huge profits that will force Puerto Rico into more austerity for the next 40 years.

We believe in the right of Puerto Ricans to come back to their island. We also believe that this right should not be impaired by debt negotiations that put profits over people. For this reason, we urge you to reject this deal, and help us pave the way for a just recovery for all Puerto Ricans.

Thank you for your attention,
Julio López Varona