Puerto Rico’s Humanitarian Crisis: The Realities of a Modern Colony

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After we returned from Puerto Rico, two fellow student attorneys from the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic found our work coming together. Recently, we authored a scholarly article on Puerto Rico’s political constraints in light of its relations with the United States and the appointment of a fiscal control board under the federal Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Stability Act (PROMESA). The paper presents case studies from the perspective of the agricultural and energy fields, and proposes creative alternatives through which Puerto Rico may experience significant economic growth and achieve a sustainable level of resiliency, by empowering local communities and municipalities. Although such community-level economic growth has been achieved in other countries, such efforts in Puerto Rico are frustrated by the islands’ controversial political dichotomy.

Puerto Rico’s official political identity is the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, albeit in title rather than form. Despite granting Puerto Rico the right to constitute its own republican government, Congress retains control over the islands under the Federal Constitution’s Territorial Clause. Recently, Congress exercised this control and enacted PROMESA, whereupon a fiscal control board was appointed to oversee Puerto Rico’s fiscal plans and assure the local government pays its 74-billion-dollar public debt. For local communities and municipalities, the board threatens local budgets and other instrumentalities, such as land and utilities. This means that efforts to create community-owned resources and revenue streams could be hampered by the board.

As #UBLawReponds student attorneys, we tasked ourselves with identifying ways in which Puerto Rico’s communities can achieve resiliency and rise above the strictures of PROMESA and the fiscal control board. In a similar manner, other schools and entities, both in Puerto Rico and mainland U.S, have joined the efforts to research and propose creative solutions to Puerto Rico’s ongoing crisis. For Puerto Ricans, it is important that discussions about the political and fiscal future of Puerto Rico continue in academic, political, and social fora. The goal is to educate people and create awareness in Puerto Rico and in the U.S. mainland. American citizens, including the millions of Puerto Ricans living in the several states, need to be aware of how they can have a strong voice in Congress through their representatives, and advocate for their fellow Americans living in Puerto Rico. But regardless of the will of Congress, Puerto Ricans need to act now. Given the collective efforts of local community partners, firms, universities, law schools, and hopefully this clinic, Puerto Rican communities could soon take charge of the future of Borinquen.

 

 

Ventanas Rotas: Importing Broken Policies

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As Puerto Rico enters its 4th month without fully reinstated power and water, crime rates have begun to soar, but the response to this reality from the government is counterintuitive at best. According to The New York Times, January 16, 2018 article, the local authorities have embraced Rudy Giuliani’s defunct “Broken Windows” policy to combat the recent influx of general crime, as well as the drastic swell in homicides. The policy purports to create a general environment of law and order by cracking down on small public crimes. Not only have critics recognized this policy as ineffective, racist, and harmful since its employ in the 80’s, there are clear signs it won’t work on the Island of Puerto Rico.

First, the police throughout Puerto Rico are on strike! How do authorities plan to increase the number of citations and arrests when 2,000 of the island’s 13,600 officers are calling out sick each day in protest? Officers are striking because they have yet to be paid for the many additional hours they put in during recovery from Irma and now María. But the failure to pay stems from the larger issue of the island’s $74 billion debt crisis – something they arguably cannot escape while trapped by PROMESA – the U.S. Federal law which created an oversight board tasked with restructuring Puerto Rico’s debt – and a general lack of independence.

Second, Puerto Rico’s economic crisis is well documented; however, the hurricane has exacerbated the issue by claiming many citizens’ jobs. Unemployment claims are mounting as employers close or downsize, and traveling to work has become more difficult for many people. People without jobs still need food for their families, gas for their generators, and funds for other basic needs, such as housing and medical attention. There has been a simultaneous uptick in robberies, theft, and car break-ins. However, I see many of these crimes as a symptom of the failing federal benefits programs and Federal aid through FEMA to help victims, not an indication of the failing morality of the Puerto Rican People.

Puerto Rico has struggled with high crime rates for most of its developed years, and I find the general response has been to blame the people and culture, when in reality, it is attributable to the stifling effects of systematic oppression. So, to see the local authorities on the island work in conjunction with federal forces to tackle this issue by attacking poorer communities – as the Broken Windows Policy inescapably does – is truly frustrating. The tactic operates within the same broken colonial mindset, by blaming the problem on the underrepresented and powerless in order to distract from the true origin of the issue – the parasitic colonizer.

When citizens have good options for employment, combined with opportunities to enrich their own communities, crime becomes a less attractive avenue for obtaining basic needs. Puerto Ricans do not need the U.S.’s recycled discriminatory tactics of oppression. What they do need should be up to them. I believe it is time to acknowledge the relationship between crime and a lack of autonomy; and, as I visit the island, I am looking forward to learning more about the Boricua point of view on the issue from the people themselves.

I volunteered to come to Puerto Rico with the #UBLawResponds Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic of the University at Buffalo School of Law because I wanted to show my solidarity with the people, and to encourage a healthier relationship with the Island in my generation. I believe that with good policy and grassroots movements Puerto Rico can thrive through its resilience.