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.

 

 

Connecting with Welcoming Experts in Puerto Rico

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Group planning brunch with Professor Connolly, Professor Ortiz Garcia, UPR student Ibrahim Rodriguez and UB Student Attorneys Dave Yovanoff and Eamon Riley.

Puerto Rico was a welcoming place. Despite some concerns among those of us serving as Student Attorneys in the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic before coming, seldom did we feel uncomfortable or unwanted. After explaining our presence to experts on the islands, the most common response was to help us achieve our goal, whether by pointing us to the next house in need of supplies, or by explaining an obscure legal issue. These individual interactions coalesced to paint a broader picture of Puerto Rico, and helped me to identify areas of potential, and concern, for the islands.

One early interaction I had was with the Director of the Environmental Legal Clinic at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Law School. Once I explained to him that I was a dual degree student pursuing both a JD and an Urban Planning Master’s degree, he was able to quickly take me through changes he sees underway in Puerto Rico’s land use regulations. The Puerto Rico Planning Board serves as a centralized planning agency for the island. Currently, there are proposed changes that will weaken the role of the Planning Board, and empower individual municipalities in making land use decisions. While there are positives and negatives to both structures for land use planning, the current proposed change presents opportunity to implement innovative policy tailored to local contexts. He also informed us to major supply chain issues for local and organic farmers, and the implementation of plans as presenting potential problems.

Along with my colleague Dave, I also met with two planning professors at UPR, Luis E. Santiago Acevedo, and Maritza Barreto-Orta Ph. D. These professors focused on issues primarily associated with water.  When we explained our ideas around water and solar, they were able to confirm some of our hypothesis. They explained that water quality and delivery is a vexing issue for many on the islands. Further, they described difficulties farmers have in attaining “bonafied status” for their crops. The professors illustrated the differences between upper and lower watersheds, relative to where crops are grown, and the types of agriculture methods used. Prof. Santiago also spoke on the recent reinvestment in sugar production as a potential economic growth area.

These early meeting with expert academics from UPR provided a context sensitive understanding that we built upon with people working in the field implementing solutions. Cecilio Ortiz García, and his student Ibrahim Rodriguez, met us for a breakfast meeting on our day off. They are working to establish a platform, known as INESI, to connect sustainability projects across PR. Their goal is to build a collaborative framework to maximize the potential impact of these projects. Connecting with them allowed our team to speak at the RISE-PR videoconference to share our on the ground work with #UBLawResponds.

Finally, we were lucky to meet Tara Rodríguez Besosa, as well as two of her collaborators Luz Cruz, and Ora Wise. Their team has been, and continues, to do amazing on the ground work bringing healthy, sustainable, and local foods to Puerto Rico. Before the Hurricane, Tara was running El Departmento de Comida, a local food hub that had grown into a farm-to-table restaurant. During the Hurricane’s immediate aftermath, their team was working with Queer Kitchen Brigade to pickle and ferment local donated produce to ship to Puerto Rico. After the hurricane, Tara is returning her organization to its roots by reestablishing the food hub, and working with the Resiliency Fund develop 200 new farms in the next two years. Her emphasis on local and sustainable products and import replacement has a need for supportive legislative, on the state and local level in Puerto Rico. Her model for economic development could be replicated and altered to fit other industries to help regrow Puerto Rico’s economy.

Each expert we met helped to further assemble the complex picture of Puerto Rico’s status. Each new connection strengthened our long term relationship with the islands. Each new piece of information helped to get our perspectives to a better place for serving Puerto Rico. We have taken this information, and have made an effort to form what will be the future of the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic. Hopefully, that clinic will allow new students in #UBLawResponds to grow as they work to serve Puerto Rico and its long term recovery.

Shelter from the Storm: Puerto Rico’s Uninsured Homeowners Face an Uphill Battle to Rebuild in the Aftermath of Hurricane Maria

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The phrase on this abandoned building in Arroyo, Puerto Rico translates to “The hand of God.”

When Hurricane Maria’s Category 4+ winds slammed into Puerto Rico last September, they exposed serious issues with the island territory’s infrastructure that go beyond providing water and electricity. For both economic and cultural reasons, Puerto Rico is woefully underinsured, leaving many homeowners without adequate funding to rebuild their shattered homes and dependent on a bankrupt territorial government on the one hand, and a federal government that seems, at best, reluctant to offer its full assistance on the other.

One of the biggest obstacles to rebuilding Puerto Rico is that as many as half of the island’s homes do not have insurance, while less than 1% of properties are covered by federal flood insurance. While speaking with students in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, insurance expert Ariel Rivera said that because of this lack of coverage, only 720 insurance claims related to Hurricane Maria had been submitted by residents of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as of January 5th, 2018, resulting in over $1.3 million in advance payments. These numbers stand in stark contrast to the over 32,000 claims Mr. Rivera says were submitted by U.S. citizens over the same time period, and the over $134 million in advance payments survivors received in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which made landfall in Florida only weeks before Maria hit Puerto Rico.

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Ariel Rivera, owner of Ariel Rivera & Associates Insurance Agency in San Juan, speaks with University at Buffalo Clinic students on Monday, January 23rd at the University of Puerto Rico.

The lack of insurance coverage in Puerto Rico is due in part to the island’s struggling economy, as nearly half of the population was already living below the poverty line before Hurricane Maria hit. However, Mr. Rivera also said that Puerto Rico’s tight-knit family structure and decades of lax building code enforcement at the local level had allowed unregulated construction to flourish, and now more than half of the homes in Puerto Rico are illegally constructed.

Tragically, families living in these homes, often for generations, could not have purchased insurance prior to Maria even if they had the means to do so because their homes were built without the permits from their local municipalities, and were not constructed in accordance with applicable building codes. Without insurance, these families will be forced to rely on the government or charitable organizations to repair or rebuild their homes, making disaster relief from FEMA even more imperative. Unfortunately, our students have seen firsthand the difficulties faced by their fellow citizens who have had claims denied by FEMA or received offers of $1,000 in assistance to rebuild homes that one survivor described as “a complete loss.”

Moving forward, HUD Secretary Ben Carson has “promised to break through entrenched government policies to put people on the path to self-sufficiency,” telling Politico, “We do recognize that the situation is different here than it is in Texas or Florida . . . We want to look at the goals, not the rules.”

For now however, #UBLawResponds student attorneys and staff in the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic are busy working alongside organizations like Ayuda Legal Huracan Maria to help survivors appeal unfavorable FEMA decisions, and to provide humanitarian assistance to those who have remained without power and potable water for the past four months. I am proud to be part of this amazing group supporting the work of faculty and students as a librarian; we are working as hard as we can to help our fellow citizens rebuild their homes and lives. You can support our ongoing efforts here.