Harvard Kennedy School Panel on Puerto Rico Economy Blasted for Lack of Puerto Ricans

Feb 2, 2022
6:33 PM

The Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Marco Carrasco/CC BY-SA 4.0)

On Wednesday, the Harvard Kennedy School announced that its webinar on Puerto Rico’s economic outlook was rescheduled for Thursday, February 17, and added another panelist to the list of speakers, which initially featured only two presenters, both non-Puerto Ricans in favor of austerity.

The virtual discussion, titled “Giving Puerto Rico the Economic Future It Deserves” and hosted by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS), was first set to feature Andrew Biggs, a Republican member of Puerto Rico’s federally imposed fiscal control board and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank; and Antonio Weiss, research fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government (M-RCBG).

The announcement on Wednesday indicated that Sergio M. Marxuach, policy director and general counsel at the Puerto Rico-based think tank Center for a New Economy, would be joining the panel.

The change was apparently made after members of Harvard’s faculty and alumni expressed their disapproval of the school hosting a discussion on Puerto Rico that featured only two, pro-austerity speakers who are not Puerto Ricans—at least by birth.

While Marxuach is a respected Puerto Rican economist, Antonio Weiss, an American policymaker and financier who is the former editor of the Paris Review, is best known by Puerto Ricans as the unofficial advisor in the Obama Treasury Department whose testimony before Congress in 2016 helped passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA).

The law created the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, known derisively by many Puerto Ricans as “la Junta,” a federally-imposed entity that supervises any law or process pertaining to the U.S. territory’s economy and finances. In short, the Junta has been charged with managing Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, primarily through the implementation of austerity measures.

Andrew Biggs is a member of said Junta, who in 2017 likened debt-ridden Puerto Rico to “the alcoholic who hits rock bottom and who says, ‘OK, we’re bankrupt now, we really got to change the way we’re doing things.'”

Biggs was speaking on a panel discussing Puerto Rico’s economic outlook, only weeks after Hurricane María had torn across the archipelago, leaving thousands dead and close to $100 billion in damage—more than the $70 billion in Puerto Rico’s public debt.

Latino Rebels founder Julio Ricardo Varela, a Harvard alumnus, emailed the following list of questions to the Kennedy School:

“1) Did the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies consider inviting actual Puerto Rican experts and voices who share a much different perspective than your two panelists? If not, will they be allowed to speak tomorrow during the Q&A section?

“2) How much time has Mr. Biggs spent living in Puerto Rico during his time on the board? How much understanding does he have about Puerto Rico’s history and culture?

“3) The Board is considered by many Puerto Ricans as the most unpopular entity on the island? Does Mr. Biggs see his role as an enabler of colonialism?

“4) Is the Puerto Rican government the only party to blame in this debt issue? Does Mr. Biggs think that Wall Street and Washington are also enablers of this debt issue?

“5) What is Puerto Rico’s economic future? What are the specific industries that will help Puerto Rico recover?

“6) What do you say to poor Puerto Ricans who have had to pay for the brunt of austerity measures?”

The Kennedy School has yet to respond, as of this reporting.

“As a Harvard alum who has spoken at the Kennedy School, it was clear that the initial panel was not presenting a fully accurate picture of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis and the role of the fiscal control board,” Varela shares with this reporter. “Interestingly enough, it was only after many Puerto Rican voices spoke out that the panel changed and an additional guest was added.

“It is important that institutions like Harvard consider that they must present an accurate take on this issue or else it runs the risk of perpetuating the Fiscal Board’s view that austerity measures have benefited Puerto Rico’s economy and its people,” Varela added. “That view has been disputed by several Puerto Rican journalists, economists and academics.”

Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law’s Cyberlaw Clinic, expressed her criticism online, tweeting: “One of the most alienating feelings I get being at Harvard is how I mostly see other Latinos working here as food workers, janitors, and security but rarely in faculty or admin positions. Then, I see a talk like this discussing the future of Puerto Rico with only two white men.”


Hector Luis Alamo is the Senior Editor at Latino Rebels and hosts the Latin[ish] podcast. Twitter: @HectorLuisAlamo