by Geraldo Rivera | Dec 06, 2013
Jose Cuevas Rivera always picks us up when our family arrives at San Juan Airport. Muscular, confident and energetic, he looks like the professional fisherman he was as a younger man. Actually, with his shaved head, big tattooed arms, pierced ears and ready smile, he looks like a professional wrestler or a Puerto Rican ‘Mr. Clean’.
Aside from taking care of our place, since giving up fishing, Jose has run his parent’s small business in Playa Salinas on Puerto Rico’s Caribbean coast. It is a usually thriving seaside bar and restaurant that attracts families of modest means from around the island. “¿Como está su negocio?” How’s your business? I always ask him as we drive south on Highway 52 past the red and orange flámboyan trees and the iconic statue of the Jíbaro, the island’s idealized traditional farmer. “Malo” Business is bad, Jose responded this time, far more emphatically negative than usual.
Jose went on to explain how a stiff, new sales tax had just been imposed and how the price of everything from utilities to food keeps going up as the government struggles to avoid becoming the next Detroit. “Nobody is working. All the kids want to go live in Orlando or New York.”
Puerto Rico and Detroit; despite their obvious differences, the Caribbean Commonwealth and the Mid-Western Motor City share awful economic and social burdens in common. Both governments are broke, crippled by staggering debt and unemployment. Crime is rampant and residents are deserting their sinking ships.
For all its obvious assets, Puerto Rico is a beautiful mess. Unlike Detroit, it is not yet in bankruptcy, but many analysts fear it is close. The biggest employer on the island by far is the government, which employs 25% of the total workforce. 20% of the entire population relies on food stamps and one in six on federal disability payments. The once thriving manufacturing sector has been decimated. The factories that were once attracted by favorable local tax laws and a relatively low-cost labor pool, mostly closed up shop as soon as their tax breaks expired. Since the peak year of 1996, the number of factory jobs has shrunken from 160,000 to a meager 75,000 today.
The recession that crippled the worldwide economy hit Puerto Rico harder and earlier than it did the mainland U.S., a savage economic downturn that began in 2006. Since then, 138,000 residents have fled stateside, and the exodus is accelerating. There are now more Puerto Ricans living in the continental U.S. than on the island. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, Puerto Rico lost 54,000 residents, or about 1.5% of its population of 3.7 million. Most of those emigrants are younger and better educated than those who have stayed behind. The island’s infrastructure is in woeful condition. Schools and prisons are over-crowded, teachers restive, cops under fire, drug abuse rampant, pawn shops booming, banks broke, and homes from San Juan to Salinas underwater in terms of their worth compared to the mortgages outstanding.
Puerto Ricans traditionally are remarkably resilient. We have an extraordinary ability to see the silver lining in every cloud. Throughout the trials and tribulations of recent years, most surveys indicate that we are still collectively among the happiest people on earth. But this unprecedented fiscal crisis threatens to drain the joy from paradise. Puerto Rico teeters on the brink of insolvency. The Commonwealth has been using debt to pay for ordinary expenses; our government credit card is exhausted. Now up to our flashing eyes in debt, there is a malignant feeling that Puerto Rico is Detroit with palm trees and mustaches.
The island is well over $100 billion in debt, counting its massively under-funded pensions. That is a debt load is bigger than any state but California and New York, with a tiny percent of their income or outlook. And like all debtors living on borrowed money, we exist on the kindness of rating agencies that dictate how much we pay to borrow the money we need to pay the bills. Right now, with Puerto Rico’s bond rating teetering on the brink of ‘junk’ status, we’re like Greece, broke, and a hair’s breadth from bankruptcy.
Although I supported the man he replaced, former Republican governor Luis Fortuño, current Democratic governor Alejandro Javier Garcia Padilla has taken dramatic steps to avert catastrophic default, cutting government jobs and imposing those stiff new taxes that my friend Jose complained about. With bond holders apparently willing to wait until Spring to see if the government sticks to its harsh austerity program, I asked Puerto Rico’s non-voting congressman Pedro R. Pierluisi whether the Commonwealth will default.
“These are very rough times for us,” the congressman told me Wednesday. “These measures are painful, but I feel that we’ll find a way to meet our obligations. I believe we will do everything and anything we can to avoid default. It won’t be easy, but we’ll find our way.”