Thousands of Puerto Ricans marched on May Day to protest the brutal austerity agenda that has been imposed on the commonwealth by an unelected and unaccountable federal oversight board.
Established in 2016 after enthusiastic lobbying by House Speaker Paul Ryan and his cronies on Wall Street and in Washington, the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico was designed to address a debt crisis by overruling local democracy. And it is doing just that. This month, the board moved to cut pensions that sustain families across the islands, which were ravaged by hurricanes and tropical storms in 2017; to force the consolidation of agencies that are essential to rebuilding Puerto Rico; to reduce sick leave and vacation pay for the public workers who struggled to maintain civil society; to slash aid to Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities; and to cut funding for its largest public university.
The board’s interventions and proclamations were described in a recent Bloomberg Markets report as “buttressing the optimism among investors that they stand to recover more on the bankrupt island’s [sic] debt than they previously expected.” But they have proven to be exceptionally unpopular with Puerto Rico’s elected leaders and the massive crowds that took to the streets on May Day. And rightly so. As a dissenting board member, Ana Matosantos, explained when the mid-April vote was taken: “I am simply not willing to support massive cuts to the safety net. I cannot support too much pain with too little promise.”
Gerardo Portela, the executive director of elected Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s fiscal agency, was blunter, arguing that the board’s assault on the islands, which have suffered not merely from hurricane hits but from an 11-year-long recession, was “inhumane.”
Inhumane, and strikingly antidemocratic—as the appointed board members (who were recommended by Ryan and his fellow congressional leaders) are shaping Puerto Rico’s fiscal policies without taking direction from the voters of Puerto Rico.
The current crisis in Puerto Rico is a predictable extension of what Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has for a number of years decried as “a colonial-type relationship” between the federal government and the people of the Caribbean archipelago.
Sanders has traveled to Puerto Rico, as a senator and a presidential contender, to decry the efforts of “vulture capitalists” and their congressional stooges to impose austerity on the island, arguing that: “In the midst of this massive human crisis, it is morally unacceptable that billionaire hedge-fund managers have been calling for even more austerity in Puerto Rico. Austerity will not solve this crisis.”
Unlike Ryan and the Speaker’s austerity board, Sanders has a smart, fiscally responsible, and forward-looking plan to stabilize Puerto Rico’s economy and to give the people who lives on the islands the resources and the opportunities they need to chart their own destiny.
Last fall, the senator proposed a legislative program to rebuild Puerto Rico—and the Virgin Islands, another US territory devastated by hurricanes in 2017. Sanders announced what has been referred to as “a Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico” by declaring that: “It is unconscionable that in the wealthiest nation in the world we have allowed our fellow citizens to suffer for so long. The full resources of the United States must be brought to bear on this crisis, for as long as is necessary. But we cannot simply rebuild Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands the way they were. We must go forward to create a strong, sustainable economy and energy system in both territories and address inequities in federal law that have allowed the territories to fall behind in almost every measurable social and economic criteria [sic].”
The Sanders plan focuses on seven concerns that must be addressed:
1) Debt and Privatization: Puerto Rico’s debt must be addressed to ensure the territory can recover with dignity. Congress must also prevent the privatization of public institutions to benefit creditors in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico is struggling with an unsustainable $74.8 billion of debt, much of which is held by Wall Street creditors, with an additional $49 billion in unpaid pension obligations. The territories’ recovery should not add to existing debt.
2) Resilient and Renewable Energy: Instead of simply rebuilding an antiquated, centralized and inefficient system dependent on imported fossil fuels, the bill ensures the electric grids will be rebuilt to be more renewable and resilient, to provide less expensive electricity and create local jobs.
3) Medicaid and Medicare Parity: The health care systems in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were inadequate before the hurricanes made landfall, in large part because they receive far fewer federal dollars compared to states. The bill makes Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands eligible for the same Medicare and Medicaid benefits as the rest of America.
4) Rebuild and Improve the VA Hospital and Clinics: Appropriates necessary funds to the VA for veterans in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
5) Improve Public Schools, Colleges, and Childcare Facilities: In addition to rebuilding damaged schools and childcare facilities, we must face the fact that many of these facilities were inadequate before the storms hit. Hundreds of public schools in Puerto Rico have been closed because of austerity policies and schools in the Virgin Islands are struggling to prepare students for college and future careers. The bill appropriates necessary funds for services and facilities for public Head Start, elementary, secondary and higher education.
6) Invest in Infrastructure and Spur Economic Development: Underfunded infrastructure in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands contributed to the severity of the damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. In addition to rebuilding damaged facilities, the legislation would make significant investments in the islands’ physical infrastructure to spur the local economy and create jobs.
7) Environmental Cleanup: Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have significant environmental contamination related to the hurricanes, prior pollution and a legacy of military bombing exercises on Vieques. The legislation would provide grants to the EPA, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Defense for environmental remediation.
Hailed by San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz as “a comprehensive plan that provides the blueprint for the transformation of Puerto Rico,” the Sanders plan is backed by Democratic Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. A companion bill in the House, sponsored by Stacey Plaskett, the delegate representing the Virgin Islands, has 20 co-sponsors, including Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Congressman John Lewis (D-GA).
The legislation that Sanders is promoting will not solve every problem facing Puerto Rico. But it is a dramatically more humane and democratic response than the pain imposed by Paul Ryan’s disastrously irresponsible austerity board.