New Orleans Reading the papers on the financial dilemma of the United States’ Puerto Rican colony you get the notion that this is just the Greek mess that we already don’t understand clearly, but in Spanglish and closer to home. Talking to Willie Cosme, veteran of KABF, Local 100, and still host of the ever popular Salsa show on Wade’s World about his return to the island and what he sees firsthand is an eye opener.
First, keep in mind that one-third of the $78 or so billion in debt and missed bond payments that is driving the island to the financial poorhouse is made up of borrowing to essentially handle medical debt since 60% of the island qualifies for Medicaid or Medicare. Brother Cosme says the Medicaid payments are so extreme because so much of the island is now elderly. As the economy has tanked, younger Puerto Ricans have naturally moved to Florida, New York, and elsewhere to find jobs. Dennis Rivera, former head of the New York-based 1199 union and a native of Puerto Rico, is heading up a committee of insurers, hospitals, and unions to see if there’s anything that can be done to save the healthcare system on the island, but that’s still in the hope and a prayer category.
Keep in mind that Puerto Ricans are in the strange situation of being United States citizens, so they can travel and settle anywhere, but as colonists on the island itself they can only vote on state and local elections, not the Presidential election, and of course since they are not a state they have no representative in Congress, even a non-voting one like the District of Columbia. Not being a state means that they also cannot declare bankruptcy as cities and states in the USA can, so the debt just hangs like a weight around their necks. Not being able to vote and without representation, Congress has basically yawned when asked about whether there might be any plan for a bailout.
And, then to make matters worse, there’s the drought. San Juan is now on a water rationing program that gives them three days with no water and one day with water. Some 30 miles out of San Juan where Cosme’s family lives, they are on a one day with and one day without system. The los ninos weather system has dried the island out. Willie reported that some people are so desperate, they are wishing for a hurricane! To keep the tourism industry alive in the hotels and to keep cruise ships still docking, operators are buying water by the tanker truck load, as you can imagine. Opening up travel and tourism to Cuba could be yet another blow to the role of tourism as a driver in the economy, just as the weather is crippling the agricultural production.
Talking to Willie, the notion of Puerto Rico, as the rich door to the Caribbean is replaced by the thought that the island and its people are more like a prisoner in solitary confinement without hope of a parole. They might be called part of our commonwealth, but don’t have access to the common wealth. Their population exceeds that of many states, yet there is no move to fully enfranchise them. Out in the water, out of sight, out of mind.
Right now Puerto Rico is so screwed. We need to do better for our fellow citizens and companeros.