Wall Street Got a Bailout, Why Not Puerto Rico?

Puerto Rico was in dire economic straits before Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit, and ongoing US-imposed restrictions will make recovery impossible, says labor leader Hector Figueroa

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AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is facing a humanitarian disaster. 60% of residents are without water and all of them are without electricity. Even before this crisis, Puerto Rico was already in a state of emergency. A crippling debt crisis was already posing a major threat to the island’s future. Héctor Figueroa is president of the Service Employees International Union 32BJ and vice chair of the Working Families Party National Committee. Héctor, welcome.

HÉCTOR FIGUEROA: Thank you.

AARON MATÉ: What do you understand is the situation right now and the island’s biggest needs?

HÉCTOR FIGUEROA: The situation continues to be one of tremendous risk to the lives of the 3.5 million American citizens who live in Puerto Rico. There is at least 40% of the population have no running water. Over 80% of the population has no electricity. Those who have electricity, it’s not ongoing. It’s based on generators and other improvised means of providing electricity. The whole power grid has been destroyed. Food is beginning to be very scarce. In fact, towns in parts of the island in the mountain region have not been reached yet by the authorities, so the real damage of this hurricane has not been completely assessed.

AARON MATÉ: Let’s talk about what I alluded to: this crisis that Puerto Rico faces starting well before this hurricane hit, in terms of the crippling debt and how that’s affected the infrastructure. There have been ongoing protests for a long time against this Control Board that was appointed to run Puerto Rico’s affairs, to deal with its $70 billion debt. Can you explain where all this stands right now as Puerto Rico deals with this disaster?

HÉCTOR FIGUEROA: Well, you are right. Puerto Rico has been hit not just by two hurricanes but by three, not just Irma and Maria but way before, the real hurricane that hit Puerto Rico was an economic financial crisis that began many decades ago but became absolutely acute with the unfolding of the financial recession that we all experienced in 2008-2009, from which Puerto Rico has not recovered.

As a result of changes in Congress, the Puerto Ricans have no way of influencing. The U.S. changed the very way in which Puerto Rico was allowed to attract industrial investments, and the island began to suffer a drain of capital, a drain of jobs and the government went into borrowing and borrowing and borrowing more to sustain the services for the population. That has really come to a point in which the portion of the debt service is eating so much of the annual budget of the island that the island is fundamentally insolvent.

The Fiscal Oversight Board was created to try to figure out what fiscal adjustments Puerto Rico could do to pay the debt and move on with its economy, but the problem is austerity in the function of the IMF Bank doesn’t work in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is actually contracting. The population can easily move to the mainland, which has been happening in large numbers. What we see now is the decline of the economy, a decline of the population, and now with these hurricanes, it’s quite apparent that there is absolutely no way that Puerto Rico can service its debt and be able to be back on its feet.

Many of us are actually saying that the Fiscal Oversight Board should recognize this situation, should be honest with the bondholders, Wall Street hedge funds who have acquired the debt hoping that they will make enormous profits. They should cut their losses and we should figure out a way to restart the economy of Puerto Rico. We’re going to have a lost generation in Puerto Rico, but if we don’t start now, this is going to be even much worse. We have to find a means for the island to be able to invest in education, on its roads. The electrical grid again has been destroyed. Its schools have been devastated. That should be the priority now.

AARON MATÉ: Right. The fact that people were fleeing even before this crisis unleashed by Hurricane Maria because of the dire economy, now people without water, 60% without water, everybody without power and especially the power issue could last for months. What does that mean for the motives for people to have to leave the island? What else can they do but try to leave?

HÉCTOR FIGUEROA: Yeah. We’re already getting pictures as flights to Puerto Rico have begun to be resumed. We’re seeing pictures of people desperately in the airports without even a ticket, just waiting to see if there is a plane that can get in. The level of desperation is unbelievable. I want to make the point that it’s not just Puerto Rico, Saint Kitts, the Virgin Islands, the whole region was impacted by Hurricane Maria and Irma before that in such a devastating way that we now have disrupted the entire fabric of that part of the Caribbean that we are responsible for. Americans need to realize that these are part of the U.S. whether by choice or by the legacy of the Spanish-American War.

These are U.S. citizens and they need our support. They need to get the full benefit of the FEMA aid and all the other means that the federal government has to assist the people. We need to avoid this collapse in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. This is really dangerous. Things are so bad. I myself have been in touch with my sister. I don’t know if my 92-year-old father, who lives in a remote town near the mountains, which has been very difficult to establish communication with him, I don’t know about half of my family. Like me, 3.8 million Puerto Ricans who live in the States are anxious and hoping to find some way of helping our brothers and sisters.

AARON MATÉ: Let’s compare that to how President Trump has responded so far. He was silent on Puerto Rico for days, spending his time attacking NFL players protesting police brutality and racism. Finally, he weighed in on Twitter yesterday and this is what he said: He talked about much of the island was destroyed, and then he says, “With billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks,” which he said, “sadly must be dealt with.” His priority right now is that Puerto Rico, in the midst of this disaster, still apparently make its debt payments to the Wall Street banks that have preyed on it over these years because of this crisis. Your response to that, Héctor?

HÉCTOR FIGUEROA: My response is that if he begins to look at the pictures, listen to the reports on the ground, it would become immediately apparent that that is not a sustainable position. Of course the banks are holding on. The banks want to be paid. They even filed, on the day of the hurricane, many of the hedge funds, they filed to get priority in the bankruptcy proceedings but they just need to abandon that illusion. Puerto Rico has been fundamentally decimated from the point of view of an active economy.

What we need to make sure now is that its people are alive, that the economy can grow again, that agriculture can be reestablished, that food begins to go to Puerto Rico and may eventually be grown again on the island. The tourist industry will be incredibly difficult to attract tourists to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in this period of time, but we should help that industry be reestablished.

Then we need to guard, defend Puerto Rico because what the last thing that we need is for people to lose their homes, to lose their land, to lose their buildings, their hotels, their small businesses, to the people that they owe to. We need relief from the debt that Puerto Ricans have, that now the assets that was backing that debt has been destroyed and relief for the government from the debt that it had to incur when the economic model was capriciously changed in Congress.

I think the president is wrong in thinking that Wall Street is going to be able to get back its money. That’s not going to happen. The way we need to deal with this is the way we dealt with AIG, the way we dealt with Lehman Brothers, the way we dealt with the big banks. Those banks were not forced to pay their debtors. We basically bailed them out. Puerto Rico needs the same thing. We need a Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico the same way we had a Marshall Plan for the European countries after World War Two. We didn’t ask them to pay the money they owed to Washington or London. We basically said, “That money will be forgiven and then Europeans, you can build your country. You can rebuild back again without that burden.” Puerto Rico needs nothing less than that.

AARON MATÉ: Héctor, I’m just thinking we should also perhaps bring the same level of criticism of economic management that we brought to Venezuela, where we read so much about how they’ve mishandled their economy through things like not having a faulty currency system. We should perhaps bring that to our own actions in Puerto Rico. Aside from all these things you’ve mentioned, isn’t it also just difficult to import basic goods into Puerto Rico right now?

HÉCTOR FIGUEROA: It’s very difficult. There is something called the Jones Act that fundamentally requires the shipping of goods to Puerto Rico to be done in ships that have the U.S. flag. If you’re trying to sail to Puerto Rico bananas made in the Dominican Republic, oil from Venezuela, cars from Germany, you have to first go to a port in the U.S., get the merchandise and then move it from that boat to a boat that then go to Puerto Rico because it’s in the U.S.’s own fleet, or you have to make that change at sea, which is even more expensive. You have an economy that is artificially inflating the cost to Puerto Rican consumers of goods. We have asked of the president to waive that Jones Act requirement. It was done, is our understanding. The Washington Post reported on it that it was waived for fuel imports in Texas and Florida. Why cannot we waive it for all the things that Puerto Ricans need right now?

AARON MATÉ: I just want to clarify that. Very close to Puerto Rico is the Dominican Republic, for example. If they wanted to send something to Puerto Rico, they’d first have to sail it to a U.S. port?

HÉCTOR FIGUEROA: Or to have a U.S. flagged ship at harbor in the Dominican Republic to bring the merchandise. We cannot have goods, commodities coming into Puerto Rico on a ship that has a foreign flag. That’s what the Jones Act requires. There may be some minor exceptions associated with situations, delegations. Things like that do happen, but the bulk of the commodities that go into Puerto Rico cannot be imported unless it’s a U.S. ship that has a U.S. flag. If it doesn’t, it’s confiscated or high penalties are applied if you try to do it otherwise.

AARON MATÉ: Héctor Figueroa, president of the Service Employees International Union 32BJ, vice chair of the Working Families Party National Committee. Thank you.

HÉCTOR FIGUEROA: Thank you so much for having us and caring about Puerto Rico. I hope your audience, the people who listen to your show will sympathize and give all you can to help the people of Puerto Rico at this time.

AARON MATÉ: Héctor, quickly, any suggestions for what people should give to any organizations that they can go to right now to help?

HÉCTOR FIGUEROA: Yes, certainly. Most Americans usually give to the Red Cross. The Red Cross has a very complex labyrinth of eventually people receiving the aid. I would strongly recommend that people search for organizations like the Center for Popular Democracy, which is working with groups in the ground who are helping people who have lost their homes, people who are trying to revitalize their communities. They already have the connections with grassroots organizations. The Hispanic Federation also based in New York has a very complex network, over 90 different groups in the U.S. If you give the funding, your contribution to the Hispanic Federation, that’s another way that you can make sure it eventually gets in the hands of Puerto Ricans. Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, City University of New York, if you Google it, it has over 40 different links to organizations that you can give money that goes directly to somebody who needs it.

AARON MATÉ: Héctor, thank you, and thank you for joining us on The Real News.