MINNEAPOLIS (KMSP) - At least $74 billion. That’s the debt overwhelming Puerto Rico.
The commonwealth’s financial crisis weighed heavily on its people for years before hurricane Maria’s catastrophic damage washed in a humanitarian one.
Wednesday, less than 24 hours after President Trump vowed to wipe the island of its debt, Puerto Ricans across the country rallied for him to make good on his word.
“Our signs here say ‘relieve, rebuild’, ‘more aid, zero debt,'” said Javier Morillo, a member of Coalicion de Boricuas en Minneosta (The Coalition of Boricuas in Minnesota). “There’s a very unequal relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. that has created this debt, and that’s why it’s clear you cannot rebuild an entire island under austerity and under the structure that has been imposed so far."
Morillo was among the at least 50 Minnesotans who rallied for relief on Minneapolis’ federal plaza Wednesday evening.
“We’re literally staring at genocide right now when we look at what’s happening in Puerto Rico,” said Maria Isa, a St. Paul-based activist and singer with strong ties to the island.
Members of the local coalition speak out in coordination with Vamos 4 PR, a national coalition that says they're dedicated to fighting for a fair economy for all Puerto Ricans, because they suspected the President’s promise is one the White House would retract Wednesday.
HOW DID PUERTO RICO GET HERE?
Local organizers say, in short, the pivotal issue dates back to 1976, when mainland companies set up shop to make big profits on the island–many to take advantage of the federal tax exemptions. In 1998, six companies alone had $912 million in tax breaks. But in 2006 those incentives ended. Mainland companies ceased business on the island and contracted out the island’s tax revenue, which helped drive the island into a deep recession.
In 2015 unemployment in Puerto Rico was 11.6 percent, more than twice the national level. To make up for deficits Puerto Rico borrowed at a faster rate and people organizers call “vulture capitalists” swooped in.
“They buy up debt, and Puerto Rican debt was very attractive because it’s triple-tax free," Morillo said. "No local tax, no state tax, no federal tax, and because Puerto Rico lives under a U.S. Federal Law that says U.S. municipalities cannot file federal bankruptcy.”
Morillo also serves as the SEIU Local 26 president, and adds the island’s financial woes resemble Detroit’s 2013 debt crisis.
“In Detroit a judge decided that millions of dollars of the debt there was incurred illegally," he said. "We have a very similar situation in Puerto Rico. Our constitution on the island sets how much debt the island can undertake, and it’s the responsibility of the lender and the receiver to take on debt legally."
As it stands, according to Morillo, the situation hinges on the President and Congress to balance out what he calls an imbalanced relationship between the island and the mainland. He, like thousands of Puerto Ricans, has loved ones who are U.S. military veterans.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, Puerto Ricans have participated in every major U.S. military engagement from WWI onward. As of 2010, the Veterans Affairs Department listed the number of Puerto Rico veterans at 116,029. More than 1,225 Puerto Ricans have died while serving for the United States. The names of those who perished in combat are inscribed in "El Monumento de la Recordacion" -- the Monument of Remembrance -- which was unveiled May 19, 1996, and stands in front of the capital Building in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Many Puerto Ricans on the island and the mainland paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country. But even armed with a culture rooted in strength and resilience, it would take a Herculean effort to recover from Hurricane Maria without first addressing the debt.
“No one’s asking for a hand out, we’re asking for what we would do for any other human being--let alone another American,” Morillo said.
Both the Coalition of Puerto Ricans in Minnesota and Vamos 4 PR ask for the island’s debt be cleared. They also encourage supporters to call their local representatives and ask Congress to at least audit the U.S. Commonwealth’s debt.
The coalitions suspect at least half of the debt is unconstitutional.