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Puerto Rico Is Being Left Voiceless: San Juan Mayor Condemns Bill to Create "Colonial Control Board"

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We turn to Puerto Rico. The Senate is set to consider a bill to create a federally appointed control board with sweeping powers to run Puerto Rico’s economy to help the island cope with its crippling debt crisis. The bill, known as PROMESA, passed the House last week by a bipartisan vote of 297 to 127, but opponents have decried the measure as antidemocratic. "We’re engaged today in a wholly undemocratic activity in the world’s greatest democracy," said Rep. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez. In the Senate, Robert Menendez, Dick Durbin and Bernie Sanders have come out against the bill, and any one of them could filibuster the legislation. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s stance on the bill remains unknown. The debate in the Senate comes as the Supreme Court has issued two major decisions about Puerto Rico. On Monday, in a 5-2 decision, the high court rejected Puerto Rico’s bid to revive its own bankruptcy law that would have let the island’s public utilities restructure about $20 billion those entities owe to bondholders. That decision came just days after the Supreme Court ruled against Puerto Rico in a separate case ruling regarding the island’s sovereignty. We speak to Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, president of the National Lawyers Guild and associate counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, we’ll get the comments of the mayor of San Juan in Puerto Rico on the deaths at the Orlando massacre, where 23 of the 49 people killed at the Pulse nightclub were Puerto Rican. But first we turn to another issue involving Puerto Rico.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the Senate is set to consider a bill to create a federally appointed control board with sweeping powers to run Puerto Rico’s economy to help the island cope with its crippling debt crisis. The bill, known as PROMESA, passed the House last week by—in a bipartisan vote of 297 to 127. Democratic Congressman Luis Gutiérrez spoke out against the bill.

REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: We’re engaged today in a wholly undemocratic activity in the world’s greatest democracy. We’re debating how we will take power from the people, who are virtually powerless already. ... Think about it. You are imposing a junta—because that’s what they’re calling it. There will be no difference between this junta and the junta of Pinochet in Chile, as far as the international community is concerned.

AMY GOODMAN: But many of Luis Gutiérrez’s longtime allies in the Congressional Progressive Caucus back the bill, including New York Congressmembers José Serrano and Nydia Velázquez, as well as Arizona Congressmember Raúl Grijalva, who said the bill was needed to address Puerto Rico’s humanitarian crisis.

REP. RAÚL GRIJALVA: H.R. 5278 is not the bill I would have drafted or the colleagues on my side of the aisle would have drafted. The oversight board is too powerful. The board is yet another encroachment on the sovereignty of the people of Puerto Rico, and rightfully so, they find it offensive. ... So here is the bottom line: Puerto Rico is drowning in debt, and H.R. 5278 is a lifeline. This is the only bill that will attract enough support from my Republican colleagues on that side of the aisle to pass in Congress, a Congress they control. Many of the provisions I oppose are the very provisions that will probably attract Republican support. We have worked for months, across the aisle and with the administration, and this is the compromise with the best opportunity to pass. ... When measured against a perfect bill, this legislation is inadequate. When measured against the worsening humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, this legislation is necessary.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In the Senate, Robert Menendez, Dick Durbin and Bernie Sanders have come out against the bill, and any one of them could filibuster the legislation. The debate in the Senate comes as the Supreme Court has issued two major decisions about Puerto Rico. On Monday, in a 5-to-2 decision, the high court rejected Puerto Rico’s bid to establish its own bankruptcy law that would have let the island’s public utilities restructure about $20 billion those entities owe to bondholders. That decision came just days after the Supreme Court ruled against Puerto Rico in a separate case, a ruling regarding the island’s sovereignty—its sovereignty rights in criminal cases.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about these political and judicial developments, we’re joined by two guests. From San Juan, Puerto Rico, we’re joined by the city’s mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz. And here in New York, we’re joined by Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, president of the National Lawyers Guild and associate counsel at LatinoJustice. Her latest article for The Huffington Post is "The United States Makes the Case for Why Puerto Rico is Still Its Colony."

Let’s go first to San Juan to the mayor. Your response to the legislation right now in Congress?

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: Well, first of all, good morning to everyone, and greetings from San Juan, Puerto Rico. You don’t add up a democratic situation. You don’t put fuel to a fire. And what the Congress has done, what the president of the United States has done, what the judicial system has done, is they have unveiled to everyone, the international community and everyone in Puerto Rico, that we are a colony of the United States. PROMESA is a broken promise to the people of Puerto Rico. They have put their backs towards the rights of Puerto Rican people, and they cannot move forward an agenda which will help the development of the Puerto Rican economy. Since 1952, the U.S. has admitted, based on the actions, that it has perpetrated a fraud on the international community when it asked for Puerto Rico to be taken out of the list of colonies. So, we are a colony.

That being said, what are we going to do in Puerto Rico? And what are the representatives—and I have to thank Luis Gutiérrez for standing his ground and standing with the people of Puerto Rico on this. But what cannot happen, and what people need to know is, while in the U.S. people are fighting to increase minimum wage to $15 an hour, this colonial control board will lower minimum wage in Puerto Rico for people 25 or under at $4.25 an hour. This colonial control board could sell our natural resources. And this colonial control board will have sovereign powers to revoke anything that our next governor, our next Legislature or any public official of the Puerto Rican government, elected by the democratic vote of the Puerto Rican people, will do. So, we have no voice, because we have been left to be voiceless by those that claim to be the beacon of democracy in all of the world.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mayor Yulín, I wanted to ask you—this control board has been compared to the D.C. control board that was established when the District of Columbia was in financial problems, but that control board required all the members—I mean, that legislation required all the members of the board to be residents of the District of Columbia, and also the federal government came in with financial aid by assuming all the pension liabilities of the District of Columbia, whereas this legislation doesn’t provide any kind of federal assistance, only a control board, six of whose seven members can be from the United States, not from Puerto Rico. Why do you call it a colonial control board?

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: Well, it’s a—when the power resides in a group of people that have not been elected in another country, that is the definition of a colony. When you cannot even declare bankruptcy and the U.S. negates the right of the Puerto Rican people to produce a piece of legislation that will allow us to orderly declare bankruptcy, that is by definition what a colony is.

Now, it’s interesting. People may think that this colonial control board allows for a structure of the debt in Puerto Rico. That is not true. The majority of its members now will have to decide, based on whatever they want and whatever issues and variables they want to put forth, if—if, not when—if our debt will be restructured. So this is basically a control board done for the hedge funds of the world, for the hedge funds that, in a manner—knowing that Puerto Rico was in a crisis, gave money to the Puerto Rican people. Now, we have our own responsibility on this. We have to reform our government. We have to restructure what our priorities are. And we have to restructure the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. So there is a shared, silent cooperation that went on to produce the perfect crisis.

Now, it’s also important to note that the Puerto Rican people will have to pay $370 million to this control board for it to be functional. So not only are they taking democracy away from Puerto Rico, but they’re also doing the following: It’s costing us money to inflict pain on our own people. And that is totally unreasonable. I cannot think of anything more un-American than that.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan into the conversation, the president of the National Lawyers Guild and associate counsel at Latino PRLDEF—LatinoJustice PRLDEF. In addition to this legislation, PROMESA, the PROMESA Act, you’ve got two Supreme Court, U.S. Supreme Court, decisions involving Puerto Rico. Explain.

NATASHA LYCIA ORA BANNAN: So, as you said, Amy, in the last week, we’ve had two decisions by the Supreme Court that have dealt with the issue of Puerto Rico, but fundamentally deal with the issue that the mayor was talking about, which is the political relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. This is the first time in a very long time, and perhaps ever, that every branch of the federal government has spoken clearly about the political status of Puerto Rico and has exposed the colonial relationship. So you had the decision in the—what’s known as the Sanchez Valle case by the Supreme Court last week, that was an issue of double jeopardy that went up, that essentially said that, you know, you can’t be charged for the same crime by two sovereigns, where the Supreme Court said Puerto Rico has no separate sovereignty, other than that granted, ceded to it by the United States Congress, that ultimately the United States Congress is the ultimate source of all authority regarding Puerto Rico. And, of course, it doesn’t say that it’s a colony, but it says that it has no separate sovereignty, it has no separate autonomy, which is the political and legal fiction that had been created in 1952.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Natasha, both of these decisions, I read them both, both the majority decisions and the dissenting opinions, and I was struck especially by the Breyer dissent in the Sanchez Valle decision, where he really goes into exposing not only the historical relationship, but also the fact that the United States went before the international community and said, hey, in 1952, we—Congress granted Puerto Rico self-government, and that this, in effect, is now contradicting what the United States told the international community when the commonwealth of Puerto Rico was first created.

NATASHA LYCIA ORA BANNAN: That’s exactly right. I mean, Breyer really looks at a less kind of textualist interpretation and says, "Let’s look at in practice." In practice, Puerto Rico has supposedly implemented some aspects of self-determination, self-governance, autonomy. But it’s really the United States’s position—on the oral argument, Breyer raised this question, as well, to the counsel and said, you know, "What is the United States’s position before the international community after this case, after you’ve filed your—a brief in this case explicitly saying that you don’t believe that Puerto Rico has any sovereignty?"

You know, this Monday is the annual hearing before the U.N. Decolonization Committee on Puerto Rico, where the United States has consistently said Puerto Rico does not need to be reviewed by this body because it doesn’t belong there—it has aspects of autonomy, it has aspects of self-governance and sovereignty. And for the first time, the governor of Puerto Rico will be going before this committee now on Monday, specifically because every branch of government has said, "Puerto Rico is a colony. You have no governance." And to—the international community, the United Nations has been very clear that colonialism is not welcome in the international community. It is immoral, it is unjust, it is unlawful. And there needs to be a process towards decolonization.

AMY GOODMAN: Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz in San Juan, can you respond to the Supreme Court decisions? But also describe the effects of the Puerto Rican debt crisis on the ground, the austerity measures that have been imposed.

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: Well, two things. First—

AMY GOODMAN: It looks like—we have have her back. We’re just having a little trouble.

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: —think that President Obama can do to start that decolonization process, which should be a self-determination process from the people of Puerto Rico and its—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re having some satellite problems connecting from New York to San Juan. It looks like Mayor Yulín is back again. Go ahead, Mayor Yulín.

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: —injure anything. So that is an act of good faith that could happen right now, today, and there is no reason and no need to wait.

AMY GOODMAN: Sorry, we lost you on the satellite. What is the act of goodwill?

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: But Puerto Rico definitely is having a crisis. We have been [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: What is the act of goodwill?

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: —at the municipality to be able to work the finances, where we have gone from a deficit of $104 million, when I became mayor, to a surplus of $24 million last year, and expect it to be surplus of more than $30 million this year. We’ve done it without laying off people, and we’ve done it increasing services.

But that has not been the faith of the central government. And, of course, when one Puerto Rican suffers, we all suffer. We have had increased number of problems with health reform and health issues. People in the United States should know that we pay the same Medicare tax that you pay, but we get less of the benefits, which, again, is highly unfair and [quite] un-American. Aren’t we supposed to all be getting the same for what we pay for? Right? So, we get less. That means that a lot of the doctors are leaving the island. We have had an exodus of more than 300,000 people in the past seven years. And, of course, that decreases our income bases, which in turn—it’s a wheel that goes round and round. People are losing their homes, because jobs are leaving.

Now, that started with the ending of Section 936 of the IRS Code, where companies could repatriate the earnings that they made in Puerto Rico back into the United States without having to pay federal income tax. Puerto Rico has one of the corporate tax rates that is the lowest in the world. It’s 4 percent, and it was just recently added. So there’s about $32 million that are—$32,000, I’m sorry—$32 billion, with a B, that are taken away from Puerto Rico every year without these companies paying one single cent of taxes and contributing that way to the Puerto Rican economy. Just recently, a couple of weeks ago, the air ambulance service was shut down because the government had no money to pay. Sometimes there is not enough equipment to conduct the surgeries that are necessary.

So, it is a crisis that we have seen increasing, and that is putting a lot more strain on the 78 municipalities of Puerto Rico. Some of them, like the larger municipality, which San Juan is, we have been able to weather the storm. But some other smaller municipalities are really hurting and are in—at the door of having to perhaps not lay off employees, but having to reduce their income. There is one municipality, Ponce, on the lower south end side of the island, that has had its employees working half-time because it isn’t able to pay for all its payroll. So, there is a humanitarian crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: We need—we need to—

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: But we need to do three things.

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