Why Is Puerto Rico Billions of Dollars in Debt?

Puerto Rico is drowning in $72 billion of debt. Over the last few years, an accelerating fiscal crisis has brought an unusual amount of attention to the U.S. territory and the unique issues it faces. News media has been calling it the “Greece of the Caribbean.” But for those that aren’t experts in municipal finance, it can be all a little abstract. How did Puerto Rico rack up such a huge bill, and how is it affecting life on the island?

Latino USA answers that question, with help from a few experts: Robert Smith of NPR’s Planet Money, economist Rosario Rivera from the University of Puerto Rico and Hector Cordero-Guzman of Baruch College.

The Hot and Cold Love Affair Between the US and Puerto Rico

The debt crisis in Puerto Rico doubled in the last decade but much of what has put the island in this position stems from decisions that have been made for more than a century.

The island became a possession of the United States in 1898 following the Spanish-American War, and since then Puerto Rico and the U.S. have developed a unique relationship, said Juan Gonzalez, Puerto Rican journalist and scholar.

“It’s easy to get married, it’s hard to get divorced,” he said. “When you no longer need a territory of 3.5 million people but they are now U.S. citizens, what do you do with it?”

Gonzalez said it’s too complex to figure out either a separation agreement or an incorporation agreement so Congress ignores the issues with Puerto Rico, but the current economic crisis has made it impossible to ignore the island any longer.

“Even with all of these problems in the island, American companies are still raking in about 40 billion dollars annually in profits,” said Gonzalez, who is also the co-host of Democracy Now.

In response to those who say Puerto Ricans are “freeloaders,” Gonzalez said more money flows from the island to the U.S. than the other way around.

“The government pays in terms of health insurance premiums under Medicare and Medicaid, but all of those programs for the most part are capped at far lower rates in Puerto Rico than other states even though the people on the island are U.S. citizens,” he said.

In this piece Gonzalez explains how U.S. policies have put the island in this position.

Why Are so Many Teachers Leaving Puerto Rico?

According to the latest census data, 9,000 teachers left Puerto Rico for the mainland in 2014. Cuts in education have consolidated classes, schools, and left many teachers unemployed, forcing to find work in places like Texas and Florida. While the job opportunities in the U.S. are good for the teachers, the mass exodus from Puerto Rico is having a severe impact on the island’s educational infrastructure.

Featured image: Dr. Manuel de la Pila Iglesias High School in Ponce, Puerto Rico (Roca Ruiz/Wikimedia Commons)

The Battle for Puerto Rico on Capitol Hill

As the debt crisis carries on in Puerto Rico, Congress debates on how to address the issue. Democrats are pushing to grant the island access to bankruptcy protection, which it lost after a 1984 amendment to U.S. bankruptcy code left Puerto Rico out. Republicans —and the financial industry— are not in favor of bankruptcy, and have offered other solutions, including a fiscal control board that would be appointed to manage Puerto Rico’s finances.

Regardless of the approach, everybody agrees something must be done. House Republicans have pledged to bring a bill to the floor by the end of March, and it appears that there is an appetite for compromise between the demands of both parties.

Making matters more complicated are the one million Puerto Ricans in the Orlando area with the potential to swing Florida in the 2016 presidential election. They may vote based on what federal government does —or fails to do— for Puerto Rico.

Latino USA took a visit to Washington to learn into the politics surrounding this issue. We spoke with Congressman Luis Gutiérrez (D-Illinois) and Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s lone non-voting member of Congress.

Featured image: (Kevin McCoy/Wikimedia Commons)

The Answer to Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis Might Be Gay Tourism

The Caribbean’s sunny skies and turquoise waters make it an alluring destination for weddings and honeymoons—but not for everyone. The region also has some of the most homophobic laws in the world. Puerto Rico is an exception. It’s known as the most gay-friendly island in the Caribbean, partly because it’s a U.S. territory. And now that gay marriage is legal across the U.S., it’s legal in Puerto Rico too. That means the island may start tapping into a promising new market to combat its crippling debt crisis.

Featured image by Katie Manning

Puerto Rico’s New Crop of Young Entrepreneurs

Every day, Puerto Ricans board planes at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, making a last-resort, one-way flight to the U.S. mainland. Since 2010, over 200,000 boricuas have moved to the U.S. to escape the grim economic landscape facing Puerto Rico. But a young group of Puerto Ricans has refused to leave, looking for untapped business opportunities in the midst of the crisis. For these entrepreneurs, the future is as bright as they can make it.

Featured image (clockwise): Natalia Figueroa, Moisés Cruz, Alan Tavares, Nestor Tavares (Photos by Andrea González-Ramírez)

Obama Will Seek $450 Million in Aid for Colombia

Top Story — U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday announced alongside Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos that he will seek $450 million in new aid for Colombia to continue fighting drug traffickers and guerrillas, and ensure a lasting peace with the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

The announcement, made during a trip by Santos to celebrate 15 years of the aid program Plan Colombia, comes weeks before a planned deadline on March 23 to sign a disarmament deal with the FARC rebel group in Havana, Cuba, a major step toward ending more than 50 years of internal conflict.

The aid program will be renamed “Peace Colombia” and will also expand global health research and collaborations, especially in light of the spread of the Zika virus throughout the Americas.

Despite the looming peace deal, and plans for a United Nations observer force, Colombia will still have to contend with violence from guerrilla groups like the ELN, drug gangs and criminal bands partially comprised of former paramilitary and guerrilla forces.

Critics also question whether Plan Colombia was indeed effective in accomplishing its stated goals, as coca production, human rights violations and massacres increased in the years after its implementation. A 2010 Fellowship on Reconciliation report (PDF) revealed that the aid may have been linked to an increase of extrajudicial killings by the Colombian military.

During their meeting the presidents congratulated one another on seeking peace with former enemies. Santos strongly encouraged the United States to soften its relations with Cuba as he strove to negotiate with the FARC. Obama has said he hopes to visit the island nation in March and may also pay a visit to Colombia on the same trip.

Headlines from the Western Hemisphere

North America

A Mexican judge ruled that construction must stop on a resort project near Cancún due to its environmental impact on a mangrove swamp.

Mexican actress Kate del Castillo dodged detention by failing to show up to Mexico’s consulate in Los Angeles after prosecutors in her country issued an order to question her about her ties to drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.”


A dual U.S.-Dominican citizen who served as a diplomat for the latter may face prosecution for alleged corruption after a New York judge ruled that diplomatic immunity is not designed to protect those dual citizens who also serve as diplomats.

Haiti’s President Michel Martelly said he will leave office when his term ends on Sunday, reversing an earlier statement that he would stay in power until a succession plan could be reached, which has still not taken place.

Central America

Honduras and Nicaragua both reported their first cases of the Zika virus in pregnant women on Thursday as the virus continues its spread across the Americas.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported a Guatemalan man who developed gangrene disease in custody and who could die if not treated soon, raising concerns about the appeals process available to deportees.


Health officials in Medellín, Colombia have announced the deaths of three Zika virus patients who contracted the rare Guillain-Barré neurological syndrome, which may be affecting some 100 of more than 20,000 Colombians who have contracted the virus.

A would-be presidential candidate in Peru who is gaining popularity may not qualify to run in the April elections due to registration incompliance, the country’s electoral board said Thursday, the second attempt to bar a candidate this week.

A regional organization representing indigenous groups from Peru’s southern Amazonas region has filed a formal complaint against the state-run oil company Petroperu for a January oil spill that the group claims has damaged a 2.5-mile stretch of a vital waterway.

A new report in The Economist investigates the frequent conflicts in Peru between communities and extractive industries like mining and oil, which have killed at least 53 people since 2011.

Southern Cone

Doctors in Brazil may sharpen the criteria they use to identify microcephaly, part of a government effort to decrease false diagnoses of the birth defect, which has reportedly skyrocketed during the past several months as Zika has spread.

Brazil’s trade minister announced that the country will seek to expand trade deals with the Argentine and Mexican auto industry in an effort to leverage its cheap currency to boost exports, reversing a longtime protectionist trend.

Brazilian cars are the focus of a corruption investigation that will now probe the alleged involvement of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose name was included among politicians accused of passing laws favorable to the auto sector in exchange for bribes.

Doctors in the Brazilian city of Campinas said two people have contracted the primarily mosquito-transmitted Zika virus through blood transfusions.

InSight Crime analyzes the results of a recently published report on drug trafficking in Argentina, noting that increased domestic consumption habits have led to the development of more sophisticated criminal organizations that are aided by widespread government corruption.

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Rep. Gutiérrez: ‘Puerto Rico Is a Colony of the United States’

This past Tuesday during a House Committee on Natural Resources hearing about Puerto Rico’s economic crisis, Illinois Congressman Luis Gutiérrez (D), who is Puerto Rican, shared his thoughts about the island’s problems. Popular Puerto Rican political commentator Jay Fonseca uploaded a clip to Facebook with Gutiérrez’s remarks. The video has already surpassed 500,000 views in one day.

Here is an excerpt of what Gutiérrez said:

“I’m just going go back to the memorandum that was issued to everyone. At the end of the second paragraph on background, it says: ‘Congress retains plenary authority under Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution to determine the ultimate disposition of the political status of Puerto Rico.’ That fact is that the Congress of the United States retains plenary powers over everything in Puerto Rico, not just the status of Puerto Rico. And that is fundamentally what should be at issue at this hearing, because you can’t resolve one without the other. You want to take the government of Puerto Rico, that doesn’t control how merchandise is brought in or out, because the Jones Act says we must use the U.S. Merchant Marine. We’re not going to discuss that today, tomorrow, or anytime between now and March 31st. …

You want to talk about economic development? How do you have economic development when if your energy is outlandishly expensive, and if you don’t invest in making sure that you have a clear water supply in a tropical island? So, look, there’s a lot of things, but fundamentally let’s deal with one thing. Because the background statement doesn’t say it. Why don’t we all just come to the conclusion, which I’m sure Mr. [Pedro] Pierluisi agrees as the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States of America. Puerto Rico is war booty from the war in 1898. It wasn’t– I mean, how does Puerto Rico become part of the United States of America? It wasn’t like the Puerto Ricans all got together one day in convention and said, “Will you allow us?” No. It was a military intervention in Puerto Rico. …

The truth is, we don’t control in Puerto Rico any of the basic things. We don’t control who comes to the island or who leaves the island, because that’s controlled by the federal government. Our court system? You simply appeal to the [U.S.] Supreme Court …. So when people say, “Oh, the people of Puerto Rico, they’re responsible for everything that happened bad there and they need to take responsibility” — no, the Congress of the United States has to assume responsibility over Puerto Rico, because we have, as is stated here, plenary powers over the people of Puerto Rico.

Why are we having this hearing here, and why aren’t they having it in Puerto Rico? Because they can’t have it there.

Gutiérrez is not the only politician talking about Puerto Rico these days, although he has been one of few who has addressed this issue for years. With the 2016 election kicking into high gear, Puerto Rico is slowly entering the national dialogue. Last week at the Republican Debate in Iowa, Jeb Bush was asked a question about Puerto Rico:

Here is an excerpt of what the former governor of Florida —the very same presidential swing state with over 1 million Puerto Ricans now living there now— told a national TV audience:

And I believe that Puerto Rico ought to have the right of self-determination. If I was a Puerto Rican, I’d vote for statehood so that they have full citizenship. They serve in the military. They would have to pay federal taxes. They would — they would accept the responsibilities of full U.S. citizenship. But they should have the right of determine — self-determination.

Before you get to that, though, Puerto Rico is going to have to deal with the structural problems they face. You know, it’s — it’s a fact that if you can pay for a $79 one-way ticket to Orlando, and you can escape the challenges of a declining economy and high crime rates, you move to Orlando.

And a lot of people are doing that. And the spiraling out-of-control requires Puerto Rico to make structural reforms. The federal government can play a role in allowing them to do that, but they should not — the process of statehood or the status of Puerto Rico won’t be solved until we get to the bigger issue of how you deal with the structural economic problems they’re facing right now.

Yesterday, Chris Christie also weighed in on Puerto Rico, according to Bloomberg:

Christie, New Jersey’s two-term governor, said he would support some form of assistance for the territory of 3.5 million people if he were president, but cautioned it wouldn’t come without “tough love.” He made his comments during a town-hall meeting in Lebanon, New Hampshire, six days before that state holds the nation’s first primary.

[President] Obama in October pressed Congress to give Puerto Rico bankruptcy powers not now available to American territories in order to reduce its $70 billion debt load. He also proposed a federal oversight board to help balance its budgets and manage borrowing. The president has called for increasing health-care funding for Puerto Rico and extending tax credits to the poor.

“This has been one of the real significant neglects by the Obama administration,” Christie said when asked how he would deal with the island’s fiscal problems. “I would be willing to help the people of Puerto Rico, but in return I would have to have strict control over their budgets going forward.”

All this comes at a time where Congress is considering a bipartisan deal for the island, an unincorporated US territory, The Wall Street Journal reported this week:

GOP staffers have discussed in recent weeks with Treasury Department officials how to pair a debt-restructuring authority, the top priority of Democrats, with a strong oversight board, the main goal of Republicans.

Numerous political land mines still loom, and the discussions haven’t produced a bill yet. One key question is whether both sides can agree on an oversight structure powerful enough to assure Republicans that Puerto Rico will follow through on overdue financial overhauls, but also structured to respect the island’s self-governance, a concern of Democrats.

Recently, Latino USA dedicated an entire hour to the economic and social crisis in Puerto Rico.

America Ferrera: We Need Solidarity For Social Justice

For the second year in a row, every actor and actress nominated at the Oscars is white. The hallowed awards show has become a focal point in the call for true diversity across the entertainment industry. On Monday night, producer and actress America Ferrera weighed in on what influencers need to do to fix the problem.

Ferrera, during a talk with Gloria Steinem on the opening night of the 2016 MAKERS conference, called for “multi-pronged solutions” that address the entire Hollywood pipeline — from idea inception to the Academy Awards.

“You have this group of people, who is largely old, white men, deciding what is going to be deemed good, valuable, watchable, interesting, worth your time — that is a problem and that should be dealt with,” said Ferrera. “[But] it starts all the way back with, whose stories are we telling? Whose stories are we supporting? How do we get more diverse voices to join an industry that seems so unfriendly to them? The playing field isn’t level and equal.”

Read more at HuffPost Latino Voices.

Watch 100 Years of Dominican Beauty (and History) Come Alive

The “100 Years of Beauty” series by The Cut has taken the Internet by storm for months. Now it’s inspired producer Kayla “La La” Rodriguez to show the changing beauty styles of the Dominican Republic.

Rodriguez went beyond the hairdo transitions and make-up changes and gave fans a second “behind the looks” video too, revealing which historical figures inspired each look. She explains, for example, how the 1910’s “campesina style” was inspired by rural farmer activist Mama Tingo and the 1940’s glamorous look was inspired by Hollywood star María Montez. And, yes, she even explains why Dominican women poured beer on their hair in the 1980s.

Rodriguez didn’t shy away from some of the darker moments in Dominican history either, using dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s daughter, Angelita, as the inspiration for the 1930s look.

Read more at HuffPost Latino Voices.