The two faces of Puerto Rico

As debt crisis looms, nearly half of Puerto Ricans live below poverty line

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is a tropical paradise where one can listen to the ocean waves or admire the beautiful mountains. But that “can be misinterpreted,” says Luis J. Ocasio Torres, Moderator, San Juan Presbytery, as in “these guys are doing fine, look at how beautiful the hotels are.”

But there is another face on the island, “the human face,” he says, in which half of the island’s resident now live below the poverty line.

“The human crisis is real on the island,” says Ocasio Torres, “We have college students making one meal a day—they get by with a ham sandwich.”

For more than four decades—since 1973—Puerto Rico has been issuing debt to balance its budget and to repay and refinance older liens, leading to escalating debt, a weakening economy, corporations leaving and insufficient revenue. The total debt incurred from this policy now exceeds $70 billion.

When Puerto Rico announced it couldn’t pay its debt the U.S. Congress enacted PROMESA, the Puerto Rico Oversight Management Act (2016), a board charges with negotiating a restructure of the island’s debt. PROMESA enables the government to halt litigation in case of default, but is bound by the law to make decisions in creditor’s interest.

As a result of the debt crisis, Puerto Rico’s top medical center faces a $500 million in Medicare cuts by which at least 500,000 patients could lose medical coverage. The University of Puerto Rico is facing a $3 million cut and a minimum of 300 public schools will close.

According to Ocasio Torres, the PROMESA law seems to favor “the big bond holder companies.” Even the hedge fund groups that bought bonds at 20 cents on the dollar expect to be paid back at the full dollar value of the discounted debt they purchased, including interest.

“Where is the justice?” asks Ocasio Torres. “Why do we have to be so ready to make more than four to five times return on our investments if it’s going to hurt a mom who won’t be able to go to the doctor to make an appointment with her kids; if it’s going to hurt children who won’t have a public school.”

According to Ocasio Torres the rich are becoming richer and the middle class is getting squeezed. He says when people “get into this kind of bad spot” they want to “feel like someone cares,” which is why recent Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB) and Committee on Office of General Assembly (COGA) meetings were so important to those on the island.

“The whole denomination being with us is a big, big, big deal to us,” he says. “Your visit was not a coincidence. By coming here, visiting churches, you gave thousands of Presbyterians in Puerto Rico a ray of hope.”

The Moderator of the San Juan Presbytery adds that he doesn’t want people “to make the wrong interpretation, that Puerto Ricans just want to forfeit their debt and not comply with what they owe.”

“But what matters more?” he asks. “A human being that will go through really hard times, or a balanced budget sheet? I know money matters but I think the Bible shows us people matter more.”

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The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recently sent a letter to President Trump and congressional leaders urging them to address “the dangers of austerity that would come from extracting further sacrifices from regular citizens who have already benefited from high interest rates,” adding, “no economic arrangement should impoverish people permanently.”

The PC(USA) is also working on the Puerto Rico debt crisis with Jubilee USA Network; an alliance of faith communities and partners—which the PC(USA) helped create—that focuses on debt relief and fair trade policies on behalf of the world’s poorest countries.


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