Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla said Sunday it was a “painful decision” to default on $422 million in bond payments, a statement panned by Puerto Ricans on and off the island.
“He didn’t say one word on how he was going to fix this. This government has absolutely no credibility whatsoever,” said Emilio Martínez, who lived in New York for 30 years before retiring and returning to the island in the 1990s.
Martinez continued, saying the government can't blame previous administrations after four years in office, "There is rampant corruption and a spend, spend, spend mentality. They think they can borrow and spend all they want and just say don’t pay it and not be held accountable."
He said federal oversight is necessary "because obviously the local politicians don’t know how to handle it. We have higher taxes than in New York and people are leaving in droves. All that will be left are us older folks. Everyone is very worried and disillusioned.”
Martínez’s son, Emilio Jr., a law enforcement officer in Washington, D.C., agreed.
“It’s evident with the overspending that island leaders can’t govern themselves. It’s a mess. They need to put in a control board much like they did with Washington, D.C., in the 1980s to take over and put things in order.”
A congressional committee is considering legislation that would establish a federal review board, but it’s a controversial proposal because it would not be accountable to the territory's government.
“We have reached a tipping point,” said Gretchen Sierra Zorita, an island native currently living on the mainland. “They’ll pay the very basic services, if that, and that’s it. I’m real worried about the impact this is having on all the small businesses and all the professionals. Those are the backbone of the economy and many are leaving. There is a real brain drain that’s only going to get worse.”
One of the professions hit particularly hard by the exodus is the health field. The island’s medical association estimates than at least one doctor leaves the island every day.
José Rafael Cruz Cestero is a board-certified physician in Puerto Rico, one of just approximately 90 anesthesiologists left on the entire island.
“It’s very difficult, and every day it gets worse. A lot of my colleagues have left."
Cruz, who said his tax rate is "about 45 percent," blames the island's ills on a bloated government and corruption.
"Just think, New York City has one mayor for more than 8 million people. Here there are 78 mayors for just over three million people because every city and municipality has a mayor and a municipal council and vice mayors and all that,” said Cruz.
“I’m still here because I want to help my patients, and every time a doctor leaves, it’s like a stab in the heart because we are the ones who are moving the island’s economy. But I’m fed up with this. The government doesn’t care about the people. As much as I want to stay, I am considering leaving.”
Maritza Reyes is a local district attorney in Puerto Rico and says the dire economic situation is a particularly sharp double-edge sword for those on the government payroll.
“There is a lot of anxiety, and that brings desperation and an increase in crime. We’re seeing more carjackings, more home invasions, more robberies. So we prosecute more cases, our workload has gone way up, but we have fewer resources and manpower; everything’s getting cut. We can’t even pay police overtime to help with our cases. And on top of that we live with the possibility of getting laid off. I don’t even know that when I retire I’ll actually have my retirement. It really is an unprecedented situation, and a very sad one.”
Reyes says that she and her husband are thinking of leaving, exploring various options of relocating to the states.
“This is my country. We want to stay. We really do. We’re trying real hard to stay but it’s real hard. We can’t continue to live like this, and we’ll have to go if it doesn’t get any better.”
Cruz and Reyes say finding peers who haven’t toyed with the idea of leaving the island is difficult.
Meanwhile, a social media movement with the hashtag #YoNoMeQuito — "I’m not going anywhere" — has more than 67,000 “likes” on Facebook. It urges island residents to focus on working for the economic and social benefit of Puerto Rico, highlighting stories of business entrepreneurs and others.
“Even though we may be in darkness, there is light. Join us to give your upmost talent and your abilities to serve Puerto Rico,” says the movement's website.
Recently retired Elba Longo says that optimism is what is giving her the confidence to go back to Puerto Rico after decades on the mainland.
“I’ve always had it in my heart to go back. Washington, D.C. went through the same financial problems, and look at how it’s rebounded. I have faith that the same thing will happen on the island.”
Patricia Guadalupe is a contributing writer for LATINO Magazine.