IN SAN JUAN THE COST OF LIVING RIVALS BOSTON, WHILE HOUSE PRICES RIVAL L.A. THE ISLAND AS A WHOLE HAS A 45% POVERTY RATE AND OVER 12% UNEMPLOYMENT. THAT WAS BEFORE MARIA.
MOST JOBS PAY ROUGHLY 60% WHAT THEY DO IN THE STATES. YET MANY REFUSE THE RAISE AND STAY. WHY? FAMILY AND “COUNTRY.” MAYBE THEY’RE RIGHT. QUALITY OF LIFE–SORT OF. BUT THE NEXT THING YOU’LL HEAR IS HOW THEY CAN’T MAKE ENDS MEET. JUST WHEN THEY REACHED 60% ELECTRICITY RESTORATION, THE ENTIRE GRID WAS BROUGHT BACK DOWN. THAT WAS LAST WEEK.
WHAT DO THOSE IN THE KNOW SAY ABOUT THE FUTURE? MARIA’S OVER. FEMA’S DONE. NOW COMES THE FORGETTING. EVEN A SUCCESSFUL VOTE FOR STATEHOOD PROBABLY WOULDN’T MATTER. THAT’S BECAUSE PUERTO RICO EXPERTS SAY CONGRESS WOULD NEVER APPROVE.
SO, HURRICANE AID’S DONE, NO DEBT RELIEF FROM CONGRESS, NO DEBT RESTRUCTURING ALLOWED, OR ANY STATEHOOD, AND A CREDIT RATING THAT COULDN’T SECURE A USED CAR. IS PUERTO RICO NOW DESTINED TO BECOME A SEMI-AMERICAN HAITI?
“All resentment is pointed at FEMA and Washington. No one here feels any responsibility in this mess.”
Breeze eases through the open air restaurant during the lunchtime bustle. Pollo, a local businessman, puffs on his cigar and leans back behind sunglasses.
The island has floated votes on statehood three times. Flaws and procedural issues have rendered the question yet unresolved.
“Puerto Rico is a proud place, where people adore their families and their independence. I am no different. That’s why I run my own import business. Besides, our government doesn’t work, not for the people of Puerto Rico.”
During the halcyon days of big tax incentives, Puerto Rico’s administrators completely ignored infrastructure. As a result island residents have been paying 0.21 cents a KWh for power. The average on the mainland is 0.11.
“People know the economy must grow. They don’t want any of the problems that come with that. They seem to think ecotourism alone will do. These people have never been a part of governing, or business. That makes it hard.”
The average age of power generation plants on the mainland is also 22 years. For Puerto Rico it’s 40. The electric power system is not alone. Neglect has compromised all the infrastructure on the island, water, roads, bridges, etc.
For decades the U.S. provided massive tax incentives for business to operate on the island. Companies participated. When the subsidies ended many such businesses departed with the credits.
Apple’s authorized share repurchase program stands at $100 billion. That’s $24b. more then Puerto Rico’s $76b. debt.
In the meantime the island failed to expand its’ domestically-based commercial and industrial base. When many multinationals bugged out, so did a vast portion of the tax base. That left huge swaths of publicly funded programs adrift without funds to implement. The tax base contracted, dramatically.
“People don’t think about tax bases or government budgets,” he says. “They think school, work, home. And many do not wish to become another U.S. state. But–” he holds his coffee cup up “they do feel U.S. support is deserved. They think so.”
At one time the story out of Puerto Rico was that people parked their cars beside the front door of their homes because the driveway or street were too far away to keep a good eye on them. That is to say, crime was rampant, along with unemployment. Most windows sport steel, in one form or another. Glass is a joke here.
Your Anthony Bourdain came down here before Maria, and Frontline, the PBS show, came after,” Pollo says. “I watched them both–we get TV here. It both was and wasn’t surprising. It’s amazing, but that’s just how people think. It’s our island yet we didn’t create any of the mess. And we want Washington to clean up the mess, but not to tell us how to live.”
“This island is the cherished home of all the people born here, and many who have left. These people love Puerto Rico. Yet economic change is difficult and often slow. I suspect this will be no different. Who knows how many people we will have once all the mass exodus ends. Perhaps then the necessary responsibility to rebuild will appear.”