An island under siege: Puerto Rico’s current financial, political, and human rights crisis

April 18, 2017

On April 7, experts gathered at the Yale Law School for a conference on the current financial crisis affecting Puerto Rico. Hosted by the Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies at the MacMillan Center, “An Island under Siege: Puerto Rico’s Current Financial, Political, and Human Rights Crisis” examined the social, legal, and political repercussions of the impositions placed on the Island by the most recent American effort to address the government-debt crisis—a federal law enacted by Congress in 2016 known as PROMESA. Panelists with a wide range of specializations including human rights lawyers, journalists, economists, and scholars, addressed the overreaching parameters of the legislation and offered alternative solutions to position Puerto Rico on a path to fiscal health and self-determination. (view video)

Maria Jordán (Senior Lector of Spanish and Lecturer of History at Yale) set the tone of the conference in her opening remarks as she expressed the collective hope from organizers and participants that the discussions throughout the day could contribute to viable solutions for the future of Puerto Rico. Jordán underscored the urgency of this task as the current crisis represents a “crucial moment in the history” of Puerto Rico “given the unrest, dislocation, discomfort, and in many cases, tragedy” generated by the effects of the most recent legislation and its role in perpetuating the colonial status of the island.

In 2016, the United States Congress enacted H.R.4900, also known as PROMESA (the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act), as a federal law to establish an oversight board, outline a process to address the nation’s debt, and implement measures to ensure future financial responsibility. The first roundtable session was comprised of compelling presentations on the antecedents and ramifications the present fiscal crisis, and PROMESA’s prerogatives, have had on law, mass media, and human rights. Legal scholar Efrén Rivera Ramos (Professor of Law, University of Puerto Rico) examined the historical precedents of Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis, as well as the legal infrastructure that enabled PROMESA to become law. In 1917, the U.S. Congress was granted plenary powers over its unincorporated territories to “dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations of territory or other property related to the United States.” Under these provisions, the present oversight board – created through PROMESA – can legally exert overarching control of the Island’s affairs including: approving long-term fiscal plans and annual budget, preventing the application of its laws, and requiring contracts and transactions to be submitted for approval. All these features collectively contribute to what Ramos interprets as “another colonial imposition that belies contemporary democratic values, impinges upon the human rights of Puerto Rico’s population, and undermines Puerto Rico’s very right to self-determination.”

Human rights lawyer Ariadna Godreau-Aubert built on Ramos’ historical analysis and demonstrated how human rights and fiscal policies are intricately connected. Calling the current fiscal problems a “crisis rooted in colonialism and inequality,” Godreau-Aubert challenged the processes by which the unelected Junta—the colloquial term for the oversight board—was given both oversight and control of the Island’s fiscal and economic affairs. She also shared several human rights implications of the current crisis. Since the restructuring of the Island’s debt entailed deep budget cuts, government-funded social services in health, education, and welfare assistance were suddenly unable to adequately provide for the population. In a country where 42% live under the poverty line and 20-30% of students require special education provisions, these budgetary decisions had significant implications for the Island’s most vulnerable residents.  

The second roundtable session expanded on the material presented in the first and offered possible solutions moving ahead. Historian Jorge Rodriguez Beruff (Director, Interdisciplinary Bachelors Program, Carlos Albizu University) contends that we are presently witnessing an “epochal change” in Puerto Rico based on failed economic models. The logic that underlined economic transformations on the island during the 20th century is now defunct. Industrial manufacturing and foreign investment during and following the WWII era came with invested strategic interests in the country’s geopolitical value that no longer apply in the twenty-first century. These shifting realities explain the economic gaps but also provide an opportunity to diversify the economy and seek creative solutions to overcome present obstacles.

Expanding on the economic context, José I. Alameda Lozada (Professor of Economics, University of Puerto Rico) arrived at the conclusion that the oversight board has only served to created new financial problems that will “hurt economic growth in the short and middle run; and neither it might rectify the structural failures of the local economy” in the long term. Lozada offered an alternative model to assess the present crisis known as the “conventional business cycle” along with additional policies to “overcome structural stagnation.”

While the Puerto Rican government and local politicians were certainly brought to task for their contribution to the present fiscal crisis (most notably by Journalist Joanisabel González), a consensus prevailed that deeper, systemic issues are at the core of the problems facing Puerto Rico. Danelle Gutarra Cordero (Lecturer, Princeton University Writing Program) delivered a moving culmination to her presentation that in many ways mirrored the current conditions on the Island as well as the conference speakers’ call for greater Puerto Rican sovereignty: “we, the people of Puerto Rico, are fighting for the right to breathe.”

Written by Amy Fallas-Kerr, M.A. History, 2017.