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.

 

 

Helping Overcome Darkness: Observations on the Creation of the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic

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“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”  – Anne Frank

I can remember when the October surprise storm hit Buffalo in October of 2006.  The wet snow came on Thursday, October 12. By Friday, October 13th, there were trees limbs everywhere. We had no power and we were shoveling out snow. It also happened to be the weekend of my wedding. A year of planning and then all I felt was panic that none of it would happen. We were lucky, despite a few small glitches our wedding went on as planned. However, we were without power for 13 days.  Our street was the last to get it back on … those 13 days living on generator power felt like forever.

I cannot imagine that there are people in Puerto Rico who have been living without power for 139 days since Hurricane Maria devastated the island.  Without power – powerless. Absence of light – darkness.

It saddens me to know that the people of Puerto Rico who are citizens of the very same United States of America that I call home would feel such a sense of powerlessness in their own country. That we are not supporting them. That they are living in darkness.

Within days of starting in my new position in the department of Clinical Legal Education, Hurricane Maria hit. Professor Kim Diana Connolly had an idea that seemed crazy and completely impossible to achieve: bring a group of students to Puerto Rico to help with the recovery and provide access to justice to people who need it most in the aftermath of a horrible disaster. The idea of the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic was born.

As part of the administrative support team, I did not have time to think about how crazy it was, I just had to get to work. Approvals needed to be gotten, complex paperwork and negotiations had to be completed, donors had to be nurtured and encouraged, students had to be recruited and selected…and the rest of my job responsibilities had to be met!

Fast forward to January 2 and the students who had been selected started class and it was time to make sure that we had everything prepared that they would need when the hit the ground in Puerto Rico. Daily classes for six hours each, coordinating guests and documents and still making arrangements for the trip,… and the rest of my job responsibilities still had to be met!

As I look back at the first few weeks of January, I do not know where all the time went.  It was a whirlwind of working on getting electronics, making reservations for flights, accommodations, meeting space. Then all of the sudden it was January 19 – my last day in the office with Professor Connolly before the group’s departure on January 21.  Business cards printed, polo shirts packed, name badges ready, banners and signage and electronics were ready to go. I felt a sense of pride that the things that I helped to organize and prepare would be just a small part of helping #UBLawResponds and our students drive out some of the darkness. That I was a small part of helping people feel as though they were no longer powerless that they had the tools to begin the process of rebuilding their lives.

We are all just a single candle…. but even just one candle can light up the dark and bring hope. I’m grateful to have had the chance to help our student attorneys and Professor Connolly bring hope, power, and light to Islands inhabited by our fellow citizens. #PuertoRicoselevanta #UBLawRespondsstandswithyou