Puerto Rico’s next crisis — brain drain

Puerto Rico’s next crisis — brain drain
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That Puerto Rico is in dire straits is an understatement.

Prior to the current catastrophes, Puerto Rico had an unemployment rate of 12.4 percent — the highest in the United States. Among islanders, 45 percent were at the poverty level and 60 percent of the population was receiving Medicare or Medicaid.

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The public debt equaled 76 percent of its Gross National Product, outstanding debt of $74 billion and rising. To add to the tale of woe, an economic depression began in 2005 when industry fled the island after the repeal of favorable tax exemption laws.

 

Today, the situation is much worse, the unemployment rate is close to 100 percent and the physical infrastructure of the island had been wiped out. This is not just about the electric grid, which will take six months to repair. ATM’s are not working because the banks cannot service them. Sewage facilities are not working because the sewage plants are not working. The availability of water is not being adequately distributed to the U.S. citizenry.

Under these conditions, it is natural to expect that there would be population flight, and since Oct. 4 over 30,000 have left the island.

This is an attempt to view the catastrophe from a constructive perspective for the purpose of changing the dialogue. The issue is twofold: survival and economic viability. There is a need to develop a long-term business plan for Puerto Rico so that the rebuilding process which is going to take place will have a purpose. Prior to the hurricanes, the island was economically bankrupt, the beautiful beaches and tropical balmy breezes were nowhere near enough to support the economy of the island. 

It is clear that assistance has been grudgingly given and only as a result of public indignation and outcry. The bottlenecks continue and the pictorials present a scathing picture of devastation. Three weeks and counting from the outset of the hurricane and relief is still wanting. The major issues are not going away. Recovery to a survival level is going to take much longer than one would expect with adequate aid.

There is no business plan for the development of Puerto Rico. It is important to reiterate that Puerto Rico was bankrupt prior to the onset of the hurricane and now what little infrastructure that it had has been wiped out. 

The development of a business plan needs to be zero-based — that is to say, the bad debt of $74 billion needs to be considered an economic loss (write it off and cry). 

Puerto Rico cannot both rebuild and pay off that monumental debt at the same time.

A task force should be formed to develop a plan for the rebuilding the new Puerto Rico that is going to emerge from this catastrophe, a Puerto Rico whose vibrant economy keeps its youth on the island, a Puerto Rico that harnesses its higher educational graduates for the socio-economic benefit of the island.

Educational attainment of a population is key to industrial development. Puerto Rico has a literacy rate of 94 percent. It awards about 50,000 undergraduate and graduate degrees a year. And not surprisingly, it is estimated that 97 percent of these cannot find employment because there is no market demand for their services. This social capital, then becomes part of the exodus to the mainland. 

It is, in reality, an educational and labor force drain where the mainland is the ultimate beneficiary of a finished product and Puerto Rico pays for the cost of production. Puerto Rico has approximately 314,346 students in both higher and vocational education. What if this trained labor force had the means of making a living on the island because the demand was there? 

Needless to say, that is pie in the sky right now, because it is going to be sometime before the schools re-open. Additionally, teachers are leaving Puerto Rico for places like Florida where they are being certified expeditiously to fill the demand in the k-12 system. It is going to be sometime before the university system in Puerto Rico gears up to do anything, and even if they could, the population they serve is unable to attend because it is preoccupied with basic survival. Further, the universities have neither infrastructural access nor electricity.

The time has come for us to think about our vision for the future of Puerto Rico and develop a plan of action for the development of the island so that a viable economic entity emerges. This has to be a collaborative enterprise between Puerto Rico and the main land. This is a challenging opportunity that will tap the resiliency of the Puerto Rican population based on cold hard facts and not a vituperative dialogue.

Jose Aybar is a native of Puerto Rico and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the Claremont Graduate School. Aybar previously served as president of Richard J. Daley College, Chicago, Illinois.