PROMESA’s promises fall short

PROMESA’s promises fall short
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As Congress moves swiftly to vote on H.R. 5278, the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act, known by its acronym PROMESA, the Spanish word for “promise,” Puerto Ricans brace themselves for an uncertain future. One thing is for sure: They have been tackling an economic recession for the past decade, and the situation keeps getting worse. Last year alone, 70,000 Puerto Ricans fled the island, for a total population reduction of 334,000 individuals in just five years, according to Pew Research. 

While this massive exodus continues, the talk in Washington often focuses on how Puerto Rico got into this mess. Some blame Congress for eliminating the island’s central economic motor, Section 936. Others debate which administration contributed more to the debt, whether the populares (commonwealthers) or the PNPs (statehooders). But all that talk, with the potential for a history book preface, gets us nowhere.


To start recovering, Puerto Rico must first be able to restructure its debt. In this regard, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi’s bill, the Puerto Rico Chapter 9 Uniformity Act (H.R. 870), was definitely a step in the right direction, empowering Puerto Rico with the ability to restructure under the U.S. bankruptcy code, as was the case until 1984 when, inexplicably, Strom Thurmond deprived the island from this section of the Code. Oddly enough, the rest of the bankruptcy code still applies — in fact, you will find a U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan.

H.R. 870 achieved unprecedented bipartisan support on the island, partly because it would yield fair and equitable agreements between bond issuing entities and their creditors. Instead, PROMESA has fractured the island’s two main political parties, and the same seems to be happening on Capitol Hill: Congressman Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) is vehemently challenging the position of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), while Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden to seek minimum wage in COVID-19 proposal Former Sanders spokesperson: Progressives 'shouldn't lose sight' of struggling Americans during pandemic 'I saw my life flash before my eyes': An oral history of the Capitol attack MORE (I-Vt.) has vowed to fight the bill that has the support of an unlikely pairing: Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan will attend Biden's inauguration COVID-19 relief bill: A promising first act for immigration reform National Review criticizes 'Cruz Eleven': Barbara Boxer shouldn't be conservative role model MORE (R-Wis.) and Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCan Biden encompass the opposition he embodied? Disney silent on Trump status in Hall of Presidents at Magic Kingdom Biden has an opportunity to win over conservative Christians MORE.

Opponents argue fairness and equity are absent in the debt restructuring now being proposed while lowering the federal minimum wage to $4.25 per hour for those under 26 years of age. This, in a place where the average income is already lower and the poverty rate significantly higher than that of Mississippi, the nation’s poorest state.

Political status has been the justification for the territory’s unequal treatment in federal programs like Medicare and Medicaid. But Congress — and the White House — could have seized this opportunity to provide Puerto Rico greater parity and the same rule of law that states have to deal with crises of this nature and magnitude.

Promising to study alternatives for growth or the viability of HUBZone designations in Puerto Rico entail no commitment of future executive or congressional action. And PROMESA’s promise to study how federal laws and programs are implemented in the territory and how they hinder growth was, in essence, already part of a 2014 Government Accountability Office report.

So the truth is that PROMESA falls short on its deliverables. It needs to promise more if the goal is to help the people of Puerto Rico — not its creditors nor its government — get out of this mess.

More importantly, PROMESA cannot be another exercise of colonial ruling, leaving the island and its democratically elected government without the power to determine what is best for Puerto Rico. Not a single hearing was held on the island to listen to what the people most affected by PROMESA have to say — 3.5 million American citizens muted. That all of this is happening in the 21st century and under the American flag is not only deplorable, it’s inhumane. 

Romero is executive director of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators.