National effort to help Puerto Rico urged

While New York state officials pledge support of Puerto Rico as the island strives to overcome its financial debt crisis, students in Rochester are working on raising awareness of the plight.

Earlier this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a summit in collaboration with Puerto Rico’s Gov. Alejandro García Padilla and 1199/SEIU United Healthcare Workers East as part of national efforts to help address the island’s health-care and economic crisis. The summit will be held in Albany before the end of this year, according to a press release from the governor’s office. The state also has opened an Office of Trade and Tourism in Old San Juan as a show of solidarity.

"Puerto Rico’s problems are New York’s problems, and we are going to be there for them 100 percent," Cuomo said in a statement. "This crisis has been decades in the making, and we will not allow the situation to continue deteriorating simply because of a lack of political will in Washington. New York stands shoulder to shoulder with Puerto Rico in the fight for fairness and economic parity — and the federal government should do the same."

In addition to New York’s support, the Hispanic Federation — a network of Latino nonprofit groups who serve more than 2 million people in the Northeast — is organizing a "National Day of Action for Puerto Rico" with support from faith and community leaders in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 2.

The island’s government ran out of funds to cover the costs of normal operations earlier this year. A White House proposal states that without U.S. intervention, the financial crisis could become a humanitarian crisis (http://1.usa.gov/1RKUgD7). The proposal calls for extending Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection to Puerto Rico so it can restructure its liabilities, enact fiscal oversight, revamp Medicaid coverage to increase access to island residents and stimulate growth by providing earned income and child-care tax credits.

But only Congress can address any of these recommendations.

It is way past time for Congress to act, according to a group of students from Nazareth College who are calling for the United States to take action to help the island, which is a commonwealth whose residents became U.S. citizens in 1917.

Paul Figueroa-Lippert, president of Nazareth’s Latin American and Spanish Majors Association (LAMSA), and Katelyn Lugo, also a LASMA member, organized a panel discussion regarding the island’s situation earlier this fall, and fellow students and community members signed petitions asking for Congress to approve a bailout.

Figueroa-Lippert spent last summer at the University of Puerto Rico and knew many families forced to move stateside because of the island’s deteriorating economy. During his time there, he experienced water rationing and noticed that the prices of goods had risen dramatically from when he lived there as a child, he said. His landlord ended up buying water from the government so tenants in his building could take showers, but they couldn’t do laundry, explained Figueroa-Lippert.

The rationing was lifted when rain from hurricanes brought needed relief, he said.

The situation led Figueroa-Lippert and Lugo, whose family lives on the island, to organize a presentation and petition drive to at least do something to help.

"It’s not like they (families) want to leave Puerto Rico," Figueroa-Lippert said. "They had to. … The United States has allowed one of its territories to be half as poor as its poorest state."

The number of island residents living at or below the federal poverty level now exceeds 45 percent, compared to a national average of 16 percent, with a median household income of $19,000, according to a report by the U.S. Treasury (http://1.usa.gov/1ScantI).

Since 2006, Puerto Rico’s economy has shrunk by more than 10 percent and employment fell 14 percent, the report found, and Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate was twice the national rate at 11.6 percent in August 2015. More than 300,000 people have left the island since the recession began, the report stated.

"The scale and depth of Puerto Rico’s downturn stems from many factors, including a boom and bust cycle in real estate and credit prior to the current fiscal crisis, longstanding problems of fiscal governance, deteriorating confidence among all stakeholders, and a structure of taxation and benefits that fails to provide the same reward for work as in the fifty states," the report found.

The Nazareth students who wrote letters to local representatives calling for Congress to allow Puerto Rico to declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy have not heard any responses, said Figueroa-Lippert. He may plan another letter-writing campaign soon, he said.

Without congressional action, the U.S. government is prohibited from lending money to Puerto Rico, Figueroa-Lippert added.

Since the government has stepped in and bailed out industries like the automotive industry, it should afford Puerto Rico the same kind of assistance, said Nazareth senior Ryan Pallas.

Pallas acknowledged that he did not know about Puerto Rico’s crisis until he attended the panel discuss at Nazareth’s Casa Hispana. And he feels the mainstream media has provided little coverage of the issue, he said.

"These are American citizens," Pallas said. "In terms of imperialization, we always hear about in American culture that the other guy is the bad guy. We don’t look in the mirror and see what we do to people."

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