Puerto Rico is open for business. So declared leaders from the devastated island on February 15 at an investors’ conference convened to explore the opportunities generated by what was described as “the greatest disaster in US modern history.” The event, in New York City, was organized by the Financial Times and Puerto Rico’s Department of Economic Development and Commerce, and it featured Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares and several members of his cabinet, who addressed a room of corporate investors eager to learn about the role they could play in Puerto Rico’s economic future. With sleek PowerPoint presentations and relentless optimism, government figures described the post-hurricane context not as a humanitarian crisis but as a chance for a “restart,” declaring almost giddily that they could now accomplish in just a few years what would have otherwise taken a decade.
The governor and his team stressed that their approach to the recovery was not a departure, but merely an acceleration of the austerity policies developed to address the preexisting financial crisis. They pointed to the labor-reform law passed months before Hurricane Maria as a sign of the administration’s commitment to creating a business-friendly environment. The legislation stripped benefits for workers, reduced sick leave, increased probationary periods, facilitated layoffs, and lowered wages. Yet one of the entrepreneurs present at the conference, Cyril Meduña, suggested that the measures had not gone far enough and that more could be done in the wake of the storm, “now that there is more mobility.” In other words, with so many Puerto Ricans leaving because of the slow recovery, lack of aid, and massive unemployment, the time might be right to further erode labor protections.
Rosselló declared that the new economic plan for Puerto Rico focused not just on financial policies but on broader social and demographic transformations. He discussed the recently announced education reform, pending health-care revisions, and reduced allocations to municipalities and the public university system as part of the government’s efforts at “right-sizing” itself to create better conditions for investments. “Even before the storms we saw opportunities,” Rosselló said, “but now we have a blank canvas where we can start thinking anew, where we can take bold steps into investment and innovation and rebuild Puerto Rico much more effectively.”
Key to Rosselló’s imagined demographic shifts, one might assume, is the historic migration of Puerto Ricans to the US mainland, which was well underway long before Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck. Since the storms, not only has the government done little to quell the wave of departures, it has sought to take advantage of the new diaspora in the midterm elections by mobilizing stateside Puerto Ricans against US politicians who voted in favor of the bill that would raise taxes on Puerto Rico–based companies. For the Puerto Rican government the growing diaspora offers political leverage but also an escape valve: The mismanagement of funds and inexplicable delays in restoring public services surely would have been subject to greater scrutiny if not for the fact that so many have left.