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The human impact of the Puerto Rico debt crisis

Last week Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla painted a grim picture of the potential humanitarian crisis that could envelop the 3.5 American citizens on the island. Appearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Dec. 1to testify about the island’s dire debt crisis, he urged Congress to act. “Let us be clear, we have no cash left,” he told Republican and Democratic Senators. The governor was unambiguous – Puerto Rico’s government can’t pay its creditors  and  provide  basic services for the territory’s residents.

Plagued for decades with a spiraling fiscal crisis, massive out migration, unemployment rates of double the national average and a median income of less than half of mainland states, the situation is dire. With a reported $73 billion in debt, Puerto Rico became insolvent in November.

{mosads}This is a humanitarian crisis. We see it at the airport and across communities in every corner of our country. Anyone who can afford to move to the mainland – name the state and chances are that you are less than 4 degrees of separation from someone with family ties to Puerto Rico- is moving to take a job, or look for one. Over the past few years, an average of 48,000 people annually depart Puerto Rico for the mainland to find a better way of life – many of them doctors, scientists, technology experts and other high-level professionals. This has eroded the state of services on the island and has compounded problems, causing the island’s tax base to shrink – which the government relies on to pay out pensions and services and pay off its debt.

This week marked the fifth congressional hearing on the Puerto Rico debt crisis this year, and still, nothing has been done. While the hearings highlight a lack of consensus regarding basic facts and figures, the discussion remained astonishingly cold, with many neglecting to mention the real, human impact and face of this crisis. What will it take to get legislators to act? Will it take widespread breakdown of Puerto Rico’s ability to provide basic social services before Congress decides to wade in? By then, it may be too late.

Both Governor Padilla and Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi testified that yes, Puerto Rico has mismanaged its finances and over-spent and over-borrowed.  We all agree there is plenty of blame to go around. But to leave Americans with a government incapable of providing a basic quality of life for its people is immoral and unjust. Let’s not forget that a Puerto Rico default hurts mom and pop retirees, many of whom live in the 50 states of the union, who invested in Puerto Rico bonds. Total default is bad for everyone.

President Obama’s Treasury Department has released a serious proposal to help Puerto Rico tackle this crisis, and would grant them SuperChapter 9-like bankruptcy protection to allow them to restructure their debt under an independent fiscal oversight board. It would also give the people of Puerto Rico equitable treatment from federal programs and the same benefits as other American citizens, including Medicaid expansion and access to the Earned Income Tax Credit. Residents of Puerto Rico are citizens, too, and should be treated as such.

The Treasury proposal is a good starting off point for the U.S. Senate and House to work in earnest to protect Americans in the mainland and Puerto Rico.  Decisive action on this crisis cannot wait. 

Ortiz co-founded the Puerto Rico Economic Recovery Initiative ( and is a partner at Falcon Cyber Investments (


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