Those of us who fought against the approval of the PROMESA Act in 2016 were right then on obvious moral and ethical grounds. Simply put, its enactment was an abuse of the anachronistic and undemocratic Territorial Clause of the federal Constitution and a blemish to the United States’ reputation as an adherent to the principle of government by the consent of the governed.
The imposition of fiscal and political control, extreme austerity measures on an impoverished 3 million people and the negation of our inherent right to defend ourselves in bankruptcy court and to negotiate directly with our debt holders are but the constant and crude realities of the actions of the seven non-elected persons that compose the Fiscal Oversight Board, or as we have come to know it in Puerto Rico, “la Junta de Control.”
Time has now proven we were also right as to the detrimental effects that the Board’s severe and unreasonable austerity measures are causing the common folk of Puerto Rico.
Puerto Ricans are being unjustly taxed on our essential services and minimal quality of living.
Our police stations are grossly understaffed as the violent crime wave is on the rise. Even our families wait for weeks, or even months at a time, for their deceased loved ones to be returned to them from our forensic science institute.
Public schools are being arbitrarily closed without a structured plan or analysis produced. Our public University of Puerto Rico is on the verge of losing its accreditation by the Middle States Association, because of an unnecessarily severe fiscal plan imposed by la Junta.
All these drastic measures, along with pension cuts, the elimination of important workers protections on the private and public sectors, have been done to comply with a draconian fiscal plan imposed by la Junta and spinelessly accepted by our current local government.
In short, la Junta and PROMESA -are just as bad as the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria- and they are killing us.
Recently, the First Circuit Court of Appeals declared that the current Board membership is unconstitutional because the appointments clause of the federal Constitution was violated in their designation process. The current Board members have filed a certiorari petition to the Supreme Court and President Trump just this week reappointed them for Senate confirmation so that they may serve the remainder of their term that expires in August.
If there is no Senatorial confirmation or another judicial order, come May 16 the current Board will vacated and budgetary and bankruptcy process, as well negotiations with debt holders would enter into a state of limbo.
As this happens, the House Committee on Natural Resources and its chairman, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), are holding hearings on the results of PROMESA and the actions of the board.
What needs to be done? First, amend PROMESA to abolish, or at least considerably curtail, the powers of the Board. The bankruptcy and debt restructuring process set up by Title III of PROMESA gives enough protections to all parts, including creditors. Therefore, Congress should let Puerto Rico defend itself in court and negotiate on its own behalf with creditors. That is essential to the principle of government through the consent of the governed.
Congress must not continue to use its authority under the Territory Clause to maintain seven unelected masters that can impose their will, favor hedge funds, and deny Puerto Ricans essential services and minimal quality of life.
Finally, the issue of U.S. colonialism and Puerto Rico’s self-determination must be addressed.
Congress should enact a process that permits representatives of all three non-territorial status options: independence, statehood and sovereign free association to negotiate formal terms. This could be done through a special constitutional status assembly elected by Puerto Ricans to negotiate with the federal government and then bring the results of those negotiations to the people of Puerto Rico for a binding, self-executing vote.
Puerto Rico is suffering an untenable situation. The United States is not meeting its obligations to fashion a reasonable way forward for all parties concerned. Congress must face the results of its failed promise to Puerto Rico and tackle head on the serious defects of the PROMESA Act.
Luis Vega-Ramos is at-large representative of Puerto Rico House of Representatives.