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As Puerto Rico Faces $95 Billion Cleanup, Exposé Reveals Vulture Firms Who Own Its $74 Billion Debt

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One month after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, a major new investigation examines the looming question of what will happen to the island’s $74 billion debt as it faces an estimated $95 billion in storm-related damage. We speak with reporters at the Center for Investigative Journalism and In These Times who spent five months digging through court filings and documents from financial firms and much more in order to put together the most up-to-date list of 10 of the largest financial firms that are now scrambling to get billions out of the bankrupt island as it tries to rebuild. Several of the funds were complicit in past financial crises in other parts of the world.

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Puerto Rico, one month after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria and, before that, Hurricane Irma. Four out of five Puerto Ricans are still without electricity, and food and water remain in short supply. Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló has set a goal of re-establishing electricity to 30 percent of the island by the end of this month. Meanwhile, on Monday, the island’s Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marín posted a shocking video of himself standing in a large dumpster, where he claimed to have found food and water that had been discarded instead of distributed.

SECRETARY OF STATE LUIS RIVERA MARÍN: [translated] Look, this is the food of the people that we should be distributing to Puerto Rico. We are seeing a whole pallet of boxes of food. We’re going to do an inventory of this. This is water, the water that the people need. We’re going to see what explanation they have to give us, because this makes even the eyes of God cry.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As Puerto Rico struggles to rebuild, we turn now to a major new investigation that examines the looming question of what will happen to the island’s $74 billion debt that’s owed to bondholders as it faces an estimated $95 billion in storm-related damage. Reporters at the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico and In These Times in the United States spent five months digging through court filings and documents from financial firms and much more in order to put together the most up-to-date list of 10 of the largest financial firms that are now scrambling to get billions of dollars out of the bankrupt island as it tries to rebuild.

More than 30 known financial firms are vying for Puerto Rico’s debt repayments, of which at least 24 are so-called vulture funds, that specialize in high-risk assets and cater to wealthy investors. Several of the funds were complicit in past financial crises in other parts of the world, including in Argentina and Greece, as well as during the 2008 financial collapse in the United States.

After President Trump visited Puerto Rico earlier this month, he told Fox News his administration would help the island recover from the extensive damage caused by Hurricane Maria by possibly wiping out its massive debt.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, we’re going to work something out. We have to look at their whole debt structure. You know, they owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’re going to have to wipe that out. That’s going to have to be—you know, you can say goodbye to that. I don’t know if it’s Goldman Sachs, but whoever it is, you can wave goodbye to that. We have to do something about it, because the debt was massive on the island.

AMY GOODMAN: Trump’s comments shook financial markets. The next morning, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney walked back the remarks, saying they should not be taken word for word.

MICK MULVANEY: Dealing with the challenges that Puerto Rico had—the island is at least $72 billion in debt, $120 [billion] if you go by other counts, before the storm. We are going to focus our attention right now on rebuilding the island, repairing the island, making sure everybody is safe and that we get through this difficult times. We are not going to deal right now with those fundamental difficulties that Puerto Rico had before the storm. By the way—and that not—many folks have not talked about this yet—a lot of those issues are already dealt with through previous legislation called PROMESA.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes after Trump tweeted last month that, quote, “Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” with, quote, “billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.”

In a minute, we’ll go to San Juan to be joined via Democracy Now! video stream by Carla Minet, co-author of the new investigation, “Who Owns Puerto Rico’s Debt, Exactly?” Minet, a journalist and editor with the Center for Investigative Journalism, based in Puerto Rico, an award-winning independent media outlet that’s marking its 10th anniversary this year. But first we go to Chicago, Illinois, where we’re joined by Jessica Stites, executive editor of In These Times, editor on this new investigation.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Jessica. Why don’t you lay out what you found?

JESSICA STITES: Sure. So, we teamed up with the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico, which has been doing amazing work for years looking into this debt crisis. And what we wanted to know was who are the current owners of the debt. And you’d think that would be an easy question, because the owners of the debt are in court fighting with the government of Puerto Rico, trying to get the money back. But actually, this is an incredibly secretive process. A lot of this happens behind closed doors, and it’s not at all public who is involved in these negotiations. So what the center did was comb through these bankruptcy documents that have been filed in court since May, and pull out the names of these bondholders and creditors that are trying to get their payments.

And we were actually surprised by what we found. We have heard a lot of names floated in relation to the Puerto Rican debt crisis, a lot of big firms. We know at some point Goldman Sachs has been involved, Merrill Lynch has been involved. But the firms that are most active in bankruptcy court right now, we found, were what are called vulture firms. And as Juan mentioned, these are firms—these are hedge funds, and they specialize in high-risk assets, so troubled assets. So they’re going into places where there’s a risk of a default, a risk of a bankruptcy, and they’re buying up this stuff and selling it to investors who tend to be very high-net-worth people. We are looking at investment thresholds of a million to 5 million dollars to even buy into these firms. And although, you know, there are a lot of debt holders, this is who we’re seeing really kind of fighting tooth and nail in court to try to get this money back.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jessica, there was quite a bit of difficulty on the part of the Center for Investigative Journalists to even get the government to release some of the original folks who bought the bonds, not necessarily the ones who have them now. Can you talk a little bit about that legal battle that went on for, I think, a couple of years?

JESSICA STITES: Sure, yeah. Carla can tell you more about that, but I certainly know that they put in, as they should have, a public records request. Puerto Rico is part of the United States. It’s governed by the same public records law. And the government basically told them, “No, we’re not going to give you this information.” They cited privacy of the creditors. And so, the center had to go to court and sue for it, and it took months. And so they finally got the names of the people who had bought this initial 2014 junk bond emission. But at the point they got them, in 2015, you know, that information was already becoming old, because this debt continues to change hands. So getting up-to-date names and debt amounts has been incredibly difficult.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, Democracy Now! spoke to Democratic Congressmember Nydia Velázquez of New York’s 7th Congressional District, originally from Puerto Rico. She said she supports debt forgiveness.

REP. NYDIA VELÁZQUEZ: Forget about public debt right now. The most important aspect and commitment, from my end, is to fight to get the resources that we need. If we don’t make Puerto Rico whole, you’re going to see a massive migration of people coming into the United States. And hedge funds or others who are owed money, they need to forget that Puerto Rico will be able to pay anything. If anything, we have to take care of retirees in Puerto Rico and the pension liabilities. I think that every—

AMY GOODMAN: Should the debt be forgiven? Forgiven?

REP. NYDIA VELÁZQUEZ: If there is a way, in terms of the authority of the federal government, yes, I will support it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez talking to Democracy Now! just a few days ago. We’re also joined by Carla Minet, who’s a co-author of the new investigation published jointly by the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico and In These Times. Carla, welcome to Democracy Now!

CARLA MINET: Good morning.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You list a bunch of the, especially the top 10, holders of the debt. And not surprisingly, from what I saw of the list, seven of the 10 are based in New York City. Could you talk about some of these funds? Many of them are hardly household names. Few people know they even exist, except if they’re in the financial world.

CARLA MINET: Yeah, definitely. Well, for us, we’ve been investigating this issue for the past three years, at least, so most of them are not new names. But in some cases, like Decagon Holdings, whose parent company is The Baupost Group, we just knew about their owners just recently, because a journalist went on looking for directions, different kind of anonymous directions, and finally got to an address where they found the owner of the firm. So, some of them have been anonymous for some time.

AMY GOODMAN: Carla, we’re very glad we were able to get you online. We had hoped to have you on video stream, but, you know, obviously, it’s extremely difficult in Puerto Rico right now. And before we go on with the investigation, can you just describe the situation on the ground? This is a month after Hurricane Maria hit, and now President Trump threatening to pull FEMA workers out, saying the U.S. can’t stay or the workers can’t stay in Puerto Rico, quote, “forever.”

CARLA MINET: Yeah. Well, right now, we—there will be a month, this Friday, since Maria came into Puerto Rico. We have to remember, we first saw Irma, hurricane, also. And, you know, these four weeks have been like hell for everyone in Puerto Rico. We are still very stranded. There’s electricity for only less than 20 percent of the population, and water for around 30 percent or so. We really have very difficult communications using cellular phones in Puerto Rico. You can do it only mostly in San Juan, the capital. And, you know, mostly people are without food, without water, especially in the mountainous region of the island. They lost their homes. They have no roofs. FEMA help has been very, very slow in Puerto Rico. And, you know, we’re still even clearing the roads in some places.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Carla, I’d like to ask you about the—to go back to your report and to list some of the firms that you highlight in the report. I’m just looking at the list of the New York-based firms, which is most of them: Autonomy Capital, Monarch Alternative [Capital], GoldenTree Asset Management, Aurelius Capital, Tilden Park, Stone Lion Capital and Fundamental Advisors. Interestingly, as you note in your report, these vulture funds are in different alliances, because they have—they hold different parts of the Puerto Rico debt and are often at odds with each other over who is first in line, in case there is a reduced payout, who’s going to be the first one at the front of the line. So could you talk about this battle between the bondholders?

CARLA MINET: Well, yes. As you said, some of the bondholders have different kinds of bonds. Puerto Rico, you know, has 18 different kinds of bonds. So, in some cases, there are definitely conflicts, even inside some of the firms that own different kinds of those bonds. And some have priority. Some are constitutionally emitted, but some of them are not. So, there are lots of criteria that anyone deciding who’s going to be paid will have to take into consideration.

So, they are all like forming alliances, that have the same legal representation. Also, they have the same lobbies. They have the same public relations firms. So, in terms of what—what’s the common interest they want to—they want to defend in court or publicly, they form these groups. There are five groups right now in the Title III bankruptcy process. And, you know, it’s a big battle. It’s $74.8 billion debt battle, the biggest in the U.S. So, a lot of people are having different kinds of interests. And in the end, there are small bondholders, and then at the very end are Puerto Ricans.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Carla Minet, co-author of the new investigation, jointly published by her organization, the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico, and In These Times. It’s titled “Who Owns Puerto Rico’s Debt, Exactly? We’ve Tracked Down 10 of the Biggest Vulture Firms.” And thank you so much to Jessica Stites, joining us from Chicago, executive editor of In These Times.

When we come back again, we find out—the voices on the ground in Puerto Rico—what’s happening today. Stay with us.

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