Democracy Now! co-host and longtime columnist for the New York Daily News. He is the 2015 Andrés Bello chair in Latin American cultures and civilizations at New York University. He was just inducted this month into New York’s Journalism Hall of Fame. He is the author of several books, including Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America.
Could Puerto Rico become America’s Greece? That’s a question many are asking as the island faces a devastating financial crisis and a rapidly crumbling healthcare system. Puerto Rico owes $72 billion in debt. $355 million in debt payments are due December 1, but it increasingly looks like the U.S. territory may default on at least some of the debt. Congress has so far failed to act on an Obama administration proposal that includes extending bankruptcy protection to Puerto Rico and allocating more equitable Medicaid and Medicare funding for the island. Meanwhile, Puerto Rican leaders in the United States are planning a massive lobbying day in Washington in early December to spur congressional action. In a holiday special, we feature a major speech by Democracy Now! co-host Juan González on "Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis: Economic Collapse in America’s Biggest Colony and What Can Be Done About It."
Correction: The 2008 Puerto Rico pension bonds referenced in this speech were actually issued under the administration of former Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila, not under that of former Gov. Sila Calderon.
AMY GOODMAN: Could Puerto Rico become America’s Greece? That’s a question many are asking as the island is facing a devastating financial crisis and a rapidly crumbling healthcare system. Puerto Rico owes $72 billion in debt. $355 million in debt payments are due on December 1st, but it increasingly looks like the U.S. territory could default on at least some of that debt. Congress has so far failed to act on an Obama administration proposal that includes extending bankruptcy protection to Puerto Rico and more equitable Medicaid and Medicare funding for the island. Meanwhile, Puerto Rican leaders in the United States are planning a massive lobbying day in Washington in early December to spur congressional action.
Well, we turn now to a major address by Democracy Now!'s co-host Juan González. Juan is also a longtime columnist for the New York Daily News and the 2015 Andrés Bello chair in Latin American cultures and civilizations at New York University. He was just inducted this month into New York's Journalism Hall of Fame along with, among others, PBS’s Charlie Rose, Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes and Max Frankel of The New York Times. Juan is the author of several books, including Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. Juan González spoke at New York University, his address titled "Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis: Economic Collapse in America’s Biggest Colony and What Can Be Done About It." He gave the speech the day before the Obama administration finally unveiled its first proposal to Congress to aid the island.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Tonight I will explore a subject that has been much in the news of late: the economic collapse and debt crisis that are currently convulsing the commonwealth of Puerto Rico. What do these twin catastrophes mean for the 3.5 million U.S. citizens who live on the island of Puerto Rico and for the general population right here in the United States? What should and can be done about it by political leaders in San Juan and Washington, given the toxic political divisions and gridlock in the government branches of both capitals? Needless to say, this is a complex topic, one that requires hard work to fully understand.
I’ve been studying closely for more than 40 years the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States as a journalist, as a researcher and chronicler of Latino history, as a longtime activist in the Puerto Rican communities of the United States and as someone who was born on that incredibly beautiful Caribbean island, who still has family ties there and who cares deeply about what happens to my homeland. And while I’ve written several columns this year in the Daily News and co-hosted some segments on Democracy Now! on the situation, a few hundred words in a newspaper article or a few minutes of a broadcast interview is woefully insufficient to express the magnitude of what is happening.
Don’t be misled by the one-dimensional reporting in the commercial media or even the business press. The fact is, as pointed out by several radical commentators, like Linda Backiel in Monthly Review, Ed Morales in The Nation and [Rafael] Bernabe, the former gubernatorial candidate of the small left-wing Puerto Rico workers’ party, Puerto Rico is now beset by two distinct, but closely intertwined, crises. One is fundamental stagnation of its economy, that has persisted for decades and is a direct result of its being a colony of the United States. The other is an immediate budgetary debt crisis that has been gathering steam for the past 10 years.
These two calamities have now combined to create a humanitarian catastrophe, one that is unraveling far more rapidly than most of us realize. Governor Alejandro García Padilla warned recently that his government will run out of cash by the end of November. At that point, there will be no money left in the Puerto Rican treasury to meet $354 million in debt payments that are due on December 1. This fiscal year alone, the government of Puerto Rico is staring at a $3.2 billion deficit—about 16 percent of its entire expenditures. After paying all of its operating costs, the central government projects it will have just $900 million available for $4.1 billion in debt service that comes due this year. In other words, only weeks remain to stave off a default that could reverberate throughout all of the U.S. municipal bond market.
How did this happen? The average American only became aware of this crisis in June, though Wall Street financial experts have known for years that the day of reckoning was coming. Still, corporate America was stunned when Governor García Padilla announced in a New York Times interview on June 29th and in a televised address to the people of Puerto Rico that same evening that the annual debt service on more than $72 billion in bonds that Puerto Rico and its various authorities and cities had issued over the past few decades is, quote, "no longer payable." He thus publicly acknowledged his government was on the verge of the biggest debt default and bankruptcy in the history of American municipal bonds, far bigger than what happened in Orange County decades ago or in Detroit more recently.
In the four months since Governor Padilla’s announcement, Puerto Rico has received more attention in the U.S. media and among Washington politicians than at any time in the island’s modern history. The almost daily coverage has surpassed even the last media juggernaut some 15 years ago, when massive civil disobedience protests forced the end of the U.S. Navy’s bombing practice on the island of Vieques. It should be noted, though, that Donald Trump’s verbal insults to Mexico and Mexican immigrants garnered far more attention from the press this summer than tiny Puerto Rico’s economic death spiral. So much for sound bites. It is tragic but almost routine these days, but it takes a crisis to get the American people to focus their gaze on the plight of 3.5 million of their fellow citizens, to stop viewing Puerto Rico simply through the same tired, stereotypical lens of either sun-drenched tourist destination or economic dependency and welfare basket case.
But even in the face of such a dire situation, our political leaders in Washington have done nothing about it. The Obama administration keeps talking about technical assistance to Puerto Rico, has rejected any talk of a financial bailout, and has basically done nothing to this point. Congress has even been even more cavalier, with the Republican leadership refusing to amend federal bankruptcy laws to allow Puerto Rico similar protections to restructure its debts as other states have.
We must not lose sight of a single fact, however. This crisis offers the best opportunity in decades to finally get Congress and the American people to address the question of what to do about Puerto Rico, not just in the next few months, but to resolve once and for all the issue of the island’s status. Puerto Rico is, after all, the largest overseas territory still under the sovereign control of the United States. It is the most important colonial possession in this nation’s history. I want to repeat that: Puerto Rico is the most important colony in the history of the United States.
Humane and just solutions to the current crisis will not come easily. Last week, for example, Puerto Rican leaders in the U.S. held an emergency summit in Florida to ramp up pressure on Congress and the president to provide some sort of help. Representatives Nydia Velázquez of New York and Luis Gutiérrez of Chicago spearheaded the unprecedented meeting which took place in Orlando just this past Wednesday. But the organizers of that event made an unnecessary mistake by failing to fully include supporters of Puerto Rican statehood in their event and by insisting that only the immediate problems of the island’s debt be addressed, not the long-term issue of Puerto Rico’s political status.
Well, you simply cannot devise satisfactory solutions to a major economic or social problem without having a firm understanding of how that problem came to be. Of course, concrete and immediate action is what Puerto Rico needs, and no one in his or her right mind believes that the status issue will be resolved anytime soon—certainly not in the next few months, nor in the next few years, possibly not for decades more. But to ignore how colonialism has shaped the current crisis is a gross distortion of reality and damages efforts to devise any fundamental solutions.
For those of us searching for ways to assist the vast majority of those affected by this crisis—the 99 percent of Puerto Ricans as opposed to the 1 percent of the island’s elite, who are tied to the interests of American banks and multinationals—it isn’t sufficient to simply cry colonialism or to insist that nothing can be done until the status issue is resolved. Both extremes need to be discarded. We need to dig deep, to analyze how U.S. domination of Puerto Rico has evolved over the past 20 to 30 years, how changes in the world capitalist economy have been manifested in our own homeland. It is time we acknowledge that globalization has rendered historic concepts of national independence almost meaningless. You no longer need foreign armies to control the population, when you can read everyone’s mail, tap everyone’s phone, empty a country’s coffers and paralyze its economy from afar, through satellites, instant wire transfers and simple cancellations of bank credit lines. What is needed is more creative and flexible approaches to defend small nations from foreign domination, to assert national sovereignty in an increasingly interdependent world.
So tonight I hope to provide some thoughts on how the current Puerto Rican crisis reached this point and what solutions will best serve the survival and progress of the Puerto Rican masses. To do so, I will touch briefly on the following themes: the unprecedented nature of the current debt crisis; could Puerto Rico become America’s Greece; how is the crisis directly affecting the Puerto Rican people; why 117 years of colonialism is central to understanding the crisis; why Puerto Rico is a corporate gold mine, not a welfare case; how did the island’s debt mushroom out of control; who were the creditors, and who are the debtors; how should any proposed solutions be evaluated; why sustainable energy is key to Puerto Rico’s future; and the role of Puerto Ricans in the United States.
Most attention so far has centered on the total debt the central government, its various public corporations and municipal governments owe to Wall Street and bondholders. That debt has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, from about $40 billion to $72 or $73 billion. In a letter that Standard & Poor’s issued to Puerto Rico on September 10th, the rating agency lowered the island’s credit rating to CC, one of the worst ratings possible, even lower than that of Greek bonds. Standard & Poor’s noted in its letter that the Puerto Rican government now owes bondholders $13,474 for every man, woman and child on the island—equivalent to nearly 50 percent of annual gross domestic product.
But that doesn’t begin to explain the dimensions of the problem. On top of the bond debt, Puerto Rico owes another $30 billion to its main government employees’ pension fund and unfunded liabilities. As Bloomberg News reported on September 25th, the commonwealth’s Employees Retirement System, which covers 119,000 employees as of June 2014, had just 0.7 percent of the assets needed to pay all the benefits that had been promised, a level unheard of among the U.S. states.
In 2008, the administration of Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila issued $2.9 billion in debt just to meet its current pension payments. (Note: The original speech erroneously said the debt was issued under the administration of Sila Calderón.) They were called pension bonds. The sale was underwritten by the Swiss bank UBS, produced big conflict-laden fees for UBS, whose representatives have since been found guilty of fraud and are immersed in scores of lawsuits from bondholders who were cheated. Calderón’s successor, Governor Luis Fortuño, ended up subsequently ending all defined benefit pensions for new employees of Puerto Rico. But the cash infusion the pension funds realized from that borrowing will run out in five years, at which point the government will have to come up with another $2 billion annually to pay for pensions and for the additional debt that it took out to tide it over for these current five years, and will likely have to slash benefits to retirees even more. The pension bonds—that $2.9 billion in pension bonds—are so worthless, they are now selling for about 30 cents on the dollar, for anybody who dares to buy them. Right?
Meanwhile, the Teachers Retirement System—that’s a separate retirement system—the public school teachers’ retirement system, is only about 15 percent funded. The court’s employee system is only about 14 percent funded. That represents about another $10 billion that the government owes in unfunded liabilities to those.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll come back to Juan González’s speech on Puerto Rico’s debt crisis in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return to Democracy Now! co-host Juan González, his major address at New York University last month, his speech called "Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis: Economic Collapse in America’s Biggest Colony and What Can Be Done About It." In this section, Juan begins by talking about healthcare funding in Puerto Rico.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In June, the federal agency in charge of Medicare and Medicaid announced that on January 1, it will slash by 11 percent its payments to 250,000 enrollees in the island’s Medicare Advantage program. Despite plans by the federal government to increase Medicare reimbursements to the 50 states by 3 percent, it’s cutting its allotment to Puerto Rico by 11 percent. The cuts will mean a loss of $300 million a year to Puerto Rico’s local government and healthcare system, a system that is already suffering because it’s been capped for decades now at only 70 percent of whatever the federal government gives per capita to other states.
The combined impact of the enormous bondholder debt, the massive unfunded pension liabilities, declining federal reimbursements for healthcare represent a perfect storm that Puerto Rico, with its shrinking economy and depression-level unemployment, cannot possibly withstand without some kind of radical restructuring of its debts in the short term and of its economy in the long term. That is why some of us have described Puerto Rico as America’s Greece. Could the island’s economic collapse and debt crisis threaten the larger economy of which it is an integral part? Most financial experts you read about dismiss the notion. But then, most discounted the possibility that the subprime mortgage crisis would spark a worldwide recession. The skeptics this time includes some prominent liberals, such as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who raised the outlandish idea a few months ago that Puerto Rico was simply a victim of geography. Writing in The New York Times, Krugman said, quote, "Puerto Rico may to an important extent just suffer from being a slightly hard to reach island in a time when corporations place a high premium on easy, just-in-time shipments."
In many ways, Puerto Rico is worse off than Greece, because it has even less ability to act independently than that depression-wracked nation. The normal refrain you hear in most media accounts is that Puerto Rico cannot resort to the normal protections of federal Chapter 9 bankruptcy because federal law only permits cities or public corporations within states to use Chapter 9, and since the island is not an independent country, it can’t go to the International Monetary Fund to seek some kind of a financial bailout the IMF is infamous for concocting. The island is in this atypical netherworld, they say. But very few go one step further and ask, "Why is that?" If it is neither a state nor an independent nation, what exactly is Puerto Rico? And why has such an important issue, like what happens when a government can’t pay its debts, fallen through the cracks when it comes to Puerto Rico? The answer is colonialism. The answer is Congress can make any laws it wants when it comes to Puerto Rico. And in the case of bankruptcy, it did just that.
First you have to understand, though, how this whole issue of municipal bankruptcy came about. During the Great Depression, cities in America started being unable to pay their debts. So in 1938, Congress passed legislation that created Chapter 9 bankruptcy. What that basically says, if you have a whole bunch that you owe money to and you can’t pay them, and they all come demanding, "Well, I have the collateral of this building or that revenue stream," and they all want their money, you have to have an orderly restructuring. And you need a nonpartisan person, a judge, to decide how much each of the [creditors] will get and what will be the reorganization plan. And so, this was passed by Congress in 1938 to assist cities that were beset by the impact of the Great Depression.
But from 1938, when the law was passed, until 1978, Congress had included all the territories and possessions of the United States under that law, which means Puerto Rico had bankruptcy protection from 1938 to 1978. But then, between '78 and the early ’80s, there were other changes to the bankruptcy law. In 1984, there was an amendment inserted into the bankruptcy law by Senator Strom Thurmond, the infamous Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and Bob Dole, who were both in the Senate at the time. They put in—they stuck in a little-noticed provision that specifically said Chapter 9 did not apply to Puerto Rico. No reason was given. No federal policy or interest in the change was spelled out in the amendment process. By a few simple phrases in an amendment that few people noticed, Congress laid the basis for the unique situation Puerto Rico now faces: It is not only broke, there is no established legal recourse for it to get a court to decide how the many debtors will get paid or how much. So, absent any kind of such protection, there is going to be years of litigation by different bondholders, and the government is going to have to spend millions of dollars in legal fees trying to figure it all out. And there's no—there’s no roadmap for how that will happen.
Much of this came to light when Puerto Rico tried in 2013 to create its own bankruptcy law, recognizing that it had this problem. A group of hedge funds and mutual fund managers, specifically BlueMountain Capital, Franklin Templeton and Oppenheimer, sued in U.S. district court, claiming that the federal law preempted Puerto Rico from doing that. The federal government overturned the Puerto—the federal court, the district court, overturned the Puerto Rico law earlier this year. And in July, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, which is the court of appeals for Puerto Rico, upheld the nullification of the Puerto Rico law.
But even one of the judges on the appeals panel, who said, "Yes, that’s the law, Puerto Rico is prohibited from doing this," wrote a stinging opinion outlining how unfair and unjust the federal law is that prohibits Puerto Rico from using Chapter 9. That judge was Juan Torruella, who is one of the most knowledgeable jurists in the nation on the history of Puerto Rico’s status. More than 20 years ago, Torruella published one of the definitive works on the question. It’s titled The Supreme Court and Puerto Rico: The Doctrine of Separate and Unequal. I recommend it highly, if you haven’t read it.
Well, this is what Judge Torruella said in July about the case before him: "The majority’s disregard for the arbitrary and unreasonable nature of the legislation enacted in the 1984 Amendments showcases again this court’s approval of a relationship under which Puerto Rico lacks any national ... representation in both Houses of Congress and is wanting of electoral rights for the offices of President and Vice-President. ... This is clearly a colonial relationship, one which violates [the] Constitution." So you have a federal appeals court judge, who’s the most knowledgeable person, saying, "Hey, this whole bankruptcy issue is another example of colonialism at work."
Now, Senator Chuck Schumer, Representative Velázquez and other friends of Puerto Rico are trying to get Congress to allow Puerto Rico to do what it had been able to do from 1938 to 1978—have the same right as any state to use the bankruptcy laws for its municipalities. But Congress doesn’t give a damn about Puerto Rico. So Schumer is trying to do the same thing Strom Thurmond and Bob Dole did back in 1984: He’s trying to stick the provision inside some bigger bill that has to be passed, hoping that it will get through.
But the reason we’re going through this ridiculous exercise in the first place is that Congress has always decided the major decisions that affect Puerto Rico without the voice or the vote of the Puerto Rican people. And that is the essence of colonial domination. This time, though, it’s not just Washington that is facing scrutiny about its Puerto Rico policies. Wall Street is feeling the heat even more. And while the big financial experts keep assuring us that there’s no systemic threat of a messy Puerto Rico bankruptcy, we should not be so quick to believe it.
You have to understand why Puerto Rico bonds have been so popular on Wall Street. They are what is called "triple tax-exempt bonds." "Triple tax-exempt" means that if you have the bonds, you don’t pay—your income, you don’t pay federal taxes. You also don’t pay state and local taxes. Now, most triple tax-exempt bonds are only available to the people of a particular state. So if you buy—if you live in New York and you buy New York bonds, you have triple tax exemption. If you live in California and you buy New York bonds, you don’t have triple tax exemption. You’re exempt from federal taxes, but not from state and local taxes. So, triple tax-exempt bonds produce far more return to those who buy them than other kinds of bonds. Puerto Rico’s bonds are triple tax-exempt to anyone in the United States. So anyone, whether you’re in California or Idaho, whatever, you can buy Puerto Rico bonds, and you have triple tax-exemption. It’s another example of Puerto Rico being in this netherworld of neither a state nor an independent nation.
So the very colonial relationship allows Wall Street to take advantage and reap even bigger profits, and then Puerto Rico bonds usually pay a higher interest rate, nominal interest rate. So, for instance, the last bonds that Puerto Rico floated in March of 2014 for about $2.9 billion paid an interest rate of 8 percent. That’s a nominal interest rate. Now, you get that 8 percent interest, and now you don’t have to pay any taxes to the federal government, to the state or to the city. That’s worth like 12 percent to you. Of course everybody wanted to give Puerto Rico money to borrow, because they were making a killing off of the triple tax-exempt interest. That’s why there was so much willingness on the part of Wall Street to issue these bonds.
But I would offer a warning to those who poopah any possibility of economic contagion. The weak link of the entire U.S. municipal bond market is a group of obscure companies known in the business as "monoline insurers." They are companies that promise bondholders that if a municipality or public corporation defaults on a bond, they will pay the bondholder. Such bond insurance is what provides not only triple tax exemption, but what’s called AAA ratings. Right? Those are the safest bonds, because even if a government defaults—and they rarely do—this company has promised you you’ll get all your money anyway, because they’ve insured the bonds. There’s only a few companies, about five or six companies, that offer this insurance—MBIA, Ambac. There’s several of them—Assured Guaranty.
Well, a funny thing happened the week that Governor Alejandro García Padilla made his announcement. The stock of all of these monoline insurers plummeted. The drop actually started about a week before Alejandro García made his announcement. My surmise of that is that Wall Street had the inside information already that the announcement was about to be made, and so they immediately started selling stock in all of the monoline insurers to—because they knew these monoline insurers, if Puerto Rico suddenly defaults on all this money, they don’t have the money to pay the insurance that all the bondholders will demand on them. And at that point, then the entire municipal bond market of the United States will be threatened, because there’s only a few of these companies, and all triple tax—all AAA-rated bonds will suddenly be suspect. So that’s the Achilles’ heel of the municipal bond market that’s at stake, that they don’t want to talk about too much, but you should keep your eye on as the weeks and months move ahead.
Now, what does all of this mean for the people of Puerto Rico? The island has now been in economic decline for the past 10 years, with its gross national product declining by 13 percent. And as the economy has declined, government debt to pay for basic services has increased. Puerto Ricans now pay the highest electricity rates in the United States, the highest sales tax rate in the United States. It was raised from 7 percent to 11 percent just on July 1, the sales tax. They have the highest unemployment rate in the United States.
They’re saddled with a higher cost for many consumer goods as a result of the Jones Act shipping restrictions that require all ships that bring any produce—any goods into and out of Puerto Rico must be on U.S.-constructed ships, U.S.-flagged ships and U.S.-manned ships. That alone—because the rest of the world is using Liberian and Panamanian freighters and is using Greek and Cypriot crews and has much lower labor costs, that alone costs Puerto Rico $567 million a year in extra costs for all of its goods. Now, again, this is a decision of Congress, because only a few miles away, another U.S. territory, the Virgin Islands, was exempted, waived from the Jones Act. So Congress decided to waive the Jones Act for the Virgin Islands, but not waive it for Puerto Rico. These are arbitrary decisions made by a body that does not have any responsiveness to the people that it affects.
Workforce participation rates—we heard a lot about that—are hovering at around 45 percent, as if the Puerto Rican people don’t want to work. Well, if you’ve been subjected to depression-level unemployment rates for 20, 30 years, you don’t think that’s going to have an impact on the workforce participation rate? Crime rates in Puerto Rico are among the highest in the country.
All this has predictably created massive flight from the island and population decline. Population decline. Now, Puerto Ricans are still having babies, so obviously people are fleeing. The estimates now are 50,000 a year. That’s a thousand people a week are leaving Puerto Rico. And this is going to increase as the crisis continues. The flight has led to an unparalleled housing crisis—quite the opposite of New York. The Puerto Rico Planning Board estimates that there are 1.4 million housing units on the island, of which only 861,000 have occupants. That means that one-third of all the housing in Puerto Rico is empty—is empty—because there’s been an overbuilding of housing, and then the housing economy never recovered. And the average prices, of course, of housing are plummeting, which means that the asset values of Puerto Ricans who have these houses have also been declining.
Even before this latest crisis, Governor Luis Fortuño instituted a massive austerity program. In 2009, he laid off 30,000 government workers despite a massive general strike. In 2013, he privatized Luis Muñoz Marín Airport and the Teodoro Moscoso Bridge and the toll highways. He gutted the pension system and raised the retirement age to 67. And the benefits that people now get will depend on their contributions, not on investment returns. They took—they reduced Christmas bonuses from $600 to $200. You know, they increased employee contributions to 10 percent. These are all the austerity measures that have already been taken, before this current crisis.
Ask yourself, could all of this austerity be implemented—how could all this austerity be implemented in a territory that is already the poorest in the union? Why would Congress and the American people continue to ignore a situation in Puerto Rico where depression-level unemployment has been the norm for decades?
You can’t understand why unless you grasp how colonialism had developed in Puerto Rico. Ever since the U.S. occupied and grabbed the island in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, Washington and our corporations have dictated the rules of the game for the island’s inhabitants and used Puerto Rico as a source of wealth. This was made possible by a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions back in the 1900s that gave legal cover to the U.S. holding of a colonial empire. In one of—they’re called the "Insular" decisions. And that’s what Judge Torruella writes a lot about. One of those decisions, Downes v. Bidwell, for instance, Justice Edward White ruled that only those parts of the Constitution apply in U.S. territorial possessions that Congress chooses to apply. Puerto Rico, White concluded, belonged to but was not part of the United States. That was, in essence, the legal defense of a colonial empire, that you could have territories that belonged to you, but were not a part of your nation. Ever since the Insular Cases, all major decisions involving the island have been dependent on acts of Congress.
But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Harry Truman. I’m going to play a couple of minutes from the Harvest of Empire tape about this, the first early period—because I’ve divided the colonial development of Puerto Rico into three phases. This is my analysis; other people may do it a little differently. But there were three phases of U.S. colonial domination of the island. The first phase I will call the classic phase, where the United States sought only to extract resources, and largely sugar.
MARTÍN ESPADA: The strange case of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico was taken as a prize of war, Spanish-American War of 1898, along with Cuba and the Philippines. Cuba and the Philippines were gradually released by the United States. Puerto Rico was not. When the United States took over Puerto Rico, so did four North American sugar companies. That’s what it was all about: sugar.
PRESIDENT HARRY TRUMAN: Puerto Rico almost blew apart because of the selfish sugar landowners. They owned tremendous tracts of land in Puerto Rico, which they devoted entirely to sugar, then worked these poor people for a dollar a day or 50 cents, if they could get them for that. And they’d rather see those people starve. I don’t mean to imply that we were in any way cruel to the Puerto Ricans, but there is another kind of cruelty. That’s indifference—indifference and neglect.
JUAN GONZALEZ: That was President Truman, in his own words, talking about this first classic phase of colonialism.
But then, as a result of popular uprisings, the National Party, all the labor strikes as a result of the end of World War II and the anticolonial movements in the world, the United States came up with a new policy, helped by the popular party of Puerto Rico—the industrial phase of exploitation. That depended largely on cheap labor, offshore manufacturing centers through the New Deal’s Operation Bootstrap, and corporate tax havens, known as the Section 936 benefit; deliberate mass migration of unskilled workers to the United States; a limited form of self-government and cultural autonomy by creating the Estado Libre Asociado, returning the Spanish language to the public schools, allowing Puerto Ricans to elect their own governors, but still all under the control of Congress; and a social democratic labor policy—Pan, Tierra, y Libertad—that was meant to defuse the revolutionary movements in Latin America and establish the showcase of the Caribbean. It was also marked by the building of a string of military bases as a bulwark of the Cold War.
In its early years, the dual policies of industrialization and mass immigration did improve conditions in Puerto Rico. Combined with the carrot-and-stick approach of granting limited self-government, returning the use of Spanish and overtly pro-labor policies, the commonwealth’s first social democratic governor, Luis Muñoz Marín, did co-opt and deflect much of the nationalist, independence and radical labor movements that had spread in the 1930s. And combined with the infamous Ley de La Mordaza that criminalized any independence activities, this new form of disguised colonialism ushered in limited prosperity.
But the miracle evaporated quickly. Annual growth rates dropped from an average of 6 percent during the 1950s to 4 percent in the 1970s, and they were stagnant throughout the 1980s. By then, Puerto Rico had become the most profitable entity in the world for U.S. corporations. The cheap labor model, though, started finding greener pastures in China, in Bangladesh, in Mexico, in Vietnam, as they offered even cheaper labor. And so, then, in 2006, Congress began to phase out the last federal tax loophole for island manufacturers. It actually started in 1996—and this is a fascinating story.
In 1996, Bill Clinton was trying to run for re-election. He wanted to raise the federal minimum wage. He needed the support of the Republicans in Congress, who were then led by Newt Gingrich, and they controlled the House. So, he had to cut a deal with Newt Gingrich to be able to raise the minimum wage. The deal that they cut was that Gingrich would demand $7 billion in tax credits for small businesses to make up for the fact that they would now have to increase the minimum wage. Clinton agreed. Where did the $7 billion come from? It came from the tax credits that had previously been granted to corporations in Puerto Rico under the Section 936. But they didn’t do it all at once. They phased it out over 10 years. So they started in ’96, and by 2006 the credits were phased out. And as soon as they were all phased out, the companies split. Right? All of the big—the manufacturing jobs, the pharmaceutical jobs left the island. And that has been the beginning of this new phase of colonialism in Puerto Rico, which I call the "uber colonialism phase."
The uber colonialism phase is one marked not by resource extraction, not by cheap-labored industrialization, but by finance capital. The financial system decided, "OK, you don’t have—you structurally don’t have the money, the way this thing is set up to keep running, so we’re just going to keep lending you money." That’s why you had the explosion of debt, and that’s why you have now the peddling of massive bonds. But, of course, when the bills come due, then the bankers say, "Well, you’re just going to have to tighten your belts, you’re just going to have to reduce spending, because you still have to pay us first. So you have to keep reducing spending." And so, that is the phase that Puerto Rico is now in, this new phase of finance domination of its economy.
And now, we keep hearing that Puerto Rico is in bad shape, that it’s requiring all this federal money. Well, the next slide is the most important one for you to remember. It’s what’s called the gap between GNP and GDP. Right? What does that mean? You know, OK, gross domestic product is the value of all the goods produced in your country, in a particular area. That’s the gross domestic product. GNP is the value of all the goods produced in your country that stay in your country—that stay in your country. So the gap between GDP and GNP is a perfect chart of all the money that is leaving Puerto Rico in the form of profits, largely, overwhelmingly, for American corporations.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan González on Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. We’ll come back to the conclusion of his speech, as Juan talks about uber colonialism, in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we return to Democracy Now! co-host Juan González in this major address at New York University about "Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis," what he calls "Economic Collapse in America’s Biggest Colony and What Can Be Done About It."
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In 2010, $33 billion of wealth produced by the Puerto Rican people left the island in just one year—in just one year. The total debt of the island is $72 billion, but $33 billion is being siphoned every year from Puerto Rico in the profits of the multinational corporations that comes back to the United States. So that is—that is the key to understand.
Puerto Rico has always been a gold mine; this is not—this is not something new. Between 1960 and 1976, tiny Puerto Rico catapulted from sixth to first in Latin America for total U.S. direct investment, with island workers registering some of the highest productivity levels in the world. The results were levels unheard of—of profits unheard of at home. By 1976, Puerto Rico accounted for 40 percent of all U.S. profits in Latin America, more than the combined earnings of all the U.S. subsidiaries in Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela combined. That was in 1976. By then, several multinationals were reporting a quarter of all their worldwide profits were coming from tiny Puerto Rico. From its 4,000 workers in Puerto Rico alone, Johnson & Johnson saved $1 billion in federal taxes between 1980 and 1990; SmithKlein, $987 million; Merck & Company, $749 million; Bristol-Myers Squibb, $627 million. One federal study concluded that each pharmaceutical worker in Puerto Rico produced $1.5 million in value for his or her employer in 2002. Now, they were getting paid maybe $15,000, $20,000, $30,000 back in 2002. They were producing $1.5 million in value for their employers, and all that money was going to the United States. What has actually been happening in Puerto Rico for decades is that corporate America has been raping its most valuable product—human labor.
So how did the island’s debt mushroom out of control? As I said, Wall Street was eager, with the triple tax-exempt, AAA-rated, high-interest, big returns to press for—oh, one last slide I meant to—this is a comparison of GNP and—of the gap between GDP and GNP as a percentage of your economy. Notice Puerto Rico almost—oh, here, in this one, 52 percent of all the wealth created by Puerto Rico is leaving—right, is leaving—compared to all the other countries you see. Obviously, the United States is in negative. There’s more wealth—it’s producing more GNP. But look at all the others, and look at Puerto Rico, in terms of the gap between GNP and GDP.
So, what is this $72 billion in debt? How did it come about? Well, this is a summary of some of the biggest, because there are many kinds of bonds, it’s a complicated situation, all kinds of interests. But the commonwealth owes about $13 billion in general obligation bonds. They created all kinds of other corporations that have separate revenue that then pay separate bonds. So, the other big one is PREPA. That’s the gold—that’s the Crown Jewels of Puerto Rico, is the electric company, PREPA. And it has about $8.3 billion in bonds. Then, the Government Development Bank, the Puerto Rico Highway and Transportation Authority, which has obviously toll revenue, and its toll revenue is pledged to pay off those bonds. The Aqueducts and Sewer Authority has—that’s the water, so that water is pledged, the water revenue. Everything in Puerto Rico is already pledged on certain bonds to pay those back before anything else happens. And there are the pension obligation bonds that I mentioned to you before, the $2.9 billion in pension obligation bonds. These are only some. Then there’s a bunch of municipalities have their own bonds. And there’s other—the convention center has its bonds. Everything in Puerto Rico is bonded and is owed to someone—to someone outside the country.
What do the hedge funds have to do with it? Well, the bond—the mutual bond companies, like Oppenheimer and Franklin Templeton, they’re in your 401(k), they’re in government pensions, funds all across the country of huge companies. They’ve been buying a lot of Puerto Rico bonds for the returns. But they bought the bonds when they were at $100—in other words, at par, what they call par. So they were issued $100, and they bought them then. You saw how the pension bonds went from $100 to 32 cents on the—you know, 32 cents on the dollar. Well, as the financial situation in Puerto Rico declined, the value of the bonds dropped dramatically on Wall Street, and that’s when the hedge funds swoop in. The hedge funds swoop in, and they buy the bonds from Oppenheimer or Franklin Templeton or an individual bondholder who has them and says, "OK, these bonds are worthless. They’re selling now for 32 cents on the dollar. I’ll give you 60 cents on the dollar. You make—you know, you get some of your loss back. But then I’ll own the bonds." And that’s what the hedge funds do. They swoop in in times of distress, grab the bonds at discounted rates, but then they want to get paid the full 100 percent. Right? So, because if they do that, or even now with PREPA, the bondholders have offered Puerto Rico a deal. They said, "OK, we won’t insist on 100 percent. We’ll take 85 percent. We’ll take 85 cents on the dollar." So if one big hedge fund holds out and says, "No, that’s not enough money," they can paralyze the entire situation. That’s why you need bankruptcy protection, to prevent the vulture funds from holding the entire process of settlements up.
And so, how do progressives and all people of goodwill who are concerned about Puerto Rico’s future maneuver during the next few weeks and months? How do we figure out what needs to be done? And more importantly, what could be done, given the political gridlock in Washington and the deep party divisions in Puerto Rico?
First, there is a need to disseminate a clear narrative on the roots of the crisis in colonialism, not in Puerto Ricans being inept, lazy or seeking a handout.
Second, we should unite with all those who say that if Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they must be treated in equal fashion when it comes to federal grants, Medicaid, Medicare, bankruptcy laws. And that includes ending the discriminatory requirements of the Jones Act shipping laws. And if Congress refuses to change the bankruptcy laws, we should urge the Puerto Rican government to stop paying the debt. The refusal to pay debt service is the greatest leverage Puerto Rico has. And like President Obama with his military options, it should not be discarded.
Third, we should oppose debt restructuring that seeks greater austerity, lower wages or working conditions on the island, while preserving debt payments for bondholders.
And fourth, we should support economic efforts that promote and defend Puerto Rican sovereignty. While we should never stop insisting that only a final resolution to the status question can bring a healthy economy—can make a healthy economy possible, we also should not get stuck on that this has to be resolved now, because we all know it’s not going to be resolved now.
Last thing I want to address is why sustainable energy is so important to the solution of Puerto Rico’s problems. I mentioned to you PREPA, right, the Puerto Rico electric company. The reason that Puerto Rico has such high electric bills is that almost all of its electrical capacity is funded through oil. Its generating plants are all run by oil, and all of its oil is imported. So you have the additional costs of importing oil, and you have the enormous extra costs that Puerto Ricans have to pay for that electricity.
The hedge funds, who are now trying to negotiate their separate voluntary deal with the Puerto Rican government, have a plan. If they gain control, they want to switch Puerto Rico from oil to natural gas. They want to create liquefied natural gas ports. They’re already building one in the south of Puerto Rico. And they want to then import natural gas, which still requires the importation on an annual basis of the fuel that provides your electricity, and it’s also a fossil fuel. So it does nothing to help the situation with the environment.
The leading environmentalists in Puerto Rico say that this crisis should be used as an opportunity to totally restructure the way that Puerto Ricans get electricity, through sustainable energy. There are two—there are actually two sources of sustainable energy that Puerto Rico has immense quantities of: sun and wind. The trade winds are always blowing in Puerto Rico, and the sun is almost always shining. And once you build the structure to capture solar energy and wind energy, you no longer have to pay an annual fee to bring in the product to run your electrical plant. It’s a sustainable energy. In addition—in addition to that, there is energy efficiency, which has never been done in Puerto Rico, which also produces enormous energy audits of homes, educating the population, can dramatically lower the electrical bills. So, of all the potentials, that is so obvious, the biggest potential is not to let the hedge funds and the bondholders implement their natural gas plan, and get the Puerto Rican government and the people of Puerto Rico behind sustainable energy. And not only will it help the planet, it will reduce the costs of the economy of Puerto Rico dramatically.
So, what’s the role of Puerto Ricans in the United States? And I’m going to end with this. As I said earlier, more than 50,000 are fleeing the island’s collapsing economy every year and heading to the U.S. mainland, with the bulk of them settling in Florida. But unlike migrants from other countries, they’re already U.S. citizens and eligible to vote as soon as they arrive. "We’re planning to register 200,000 more Florida Puerto Ricans in the next six months," one labor leader who attended Wednesday’s summit told me. "Then we’ll see if they ignore us." This is why it’s so important to mobilize the Puerto Rican diaspora, because the majority of Puerto Ricans now live in the United States, and don’t live in Puerto Rico. You know? And that’s going to continue to be the case, so that the issue is one that—I believe it’s possible to unite all Puerto Ricans to demand fair and equal treatment, because after 117 years of colonialism and after 98 years of being official U.S. citizens, most Puerto Ricans are fed up with being ignored, dismissed and forgotten by the politicians in Washington. They don’t want handouts. They want respect. They want dignity. And they want to be appreciated for the enormous contributions they’ve made to American prosperity. And this time, if they don’t get it, the entire American economy could feel the effects. And I think that one of the key issues has to be that the Puerto Rican community in this country has to start dogging the political candidates wherever they go, of both parties, to insist that they take clear stands on what they’re going to do about a crisis that’s not going away. It’s only going to get worse. And the more that action is postponed, the worse the crisis is going to become. So that’s why the Puerto Ricans in the United States have an important role to play in achieving some kind of a measured, humane and farsighted response from the elected representatives in Congress.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan González, speaking in October at New York University about Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. Juan is Democracy Now! co-host, longtime columnist at the New York Daily News.