Puerto Rico Debt Crisis: America’s Greece?

Julian Go says colonialism has fueled commonwealth’s troubles

Alejandro García Padilla

Puerto Rico’s governor, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, has announced that the territory cannot fully repay its debts. Photo by Flickr contributor PresidenciaRD

September 1, 2015
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Strapped for revenue, a desperate government declares it cannot pay its debts and needs creditors to negotiate less stringent terms. Meanwhile, it slashes its workforce to rein in costs.

This may sound like Greece and its ongoing ordeal, but it also describes an American problem: Puerto Rico, whose governor in June declared that the island could not repay its $72 billion debt. Last month, the island’s Public Finance Corporation defaulted on most of its debt, setting up what could be one of the biggest US municipal debt restructurings in history.

The island has slashed government workers to 230,000—a drop of about 70,000—in the last six years and recently saw unemployment hit 12.4 percent, more than double that of the United States. The island has also been hit by a housing bust, a drought, and what’s being called an “outmigration,” where tens of thousands of middle-class workers are leaving for the mainland United States in search of jobs. While vowing more sacrifices, Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla is also seeking some debt forgiveness and more payback time. The government of Puerto Rico announced over the weekend that it was postponing by a week a plan for a “negotiated moratorium on the debt, with a new deadline of September 8. The Obama administration, for its part, has said it has no plans to bail out Puerto Rico.

How did the Caribbean island, famed for great beaches, but also beset with poverty, get in this jam? BU Today asked Julian Go, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of sociology and an expert on colonialism, including American. (The United States acquired Puerto Rico in the 1898 Spanish American War.)

BU Today: How did Puerto Rico rack up such enormous debt in the first place? And to whom is most of it owed?

Go: US investors, especially hedge funds, have been investing in Puerto Rico because of tax breaks that Puerto Rico enjoys due to its special status, but which states like Massachusetts do not enjoy. Perhaps more important, investors have been interested in Puerto Rico because municipalities and public corporations cannot declare bankruptcy in Puerto Rico. Detroit, for instance, can and did declare bankruptcy, as can public corporations in Michigan or Massachusetts. In Puerto Rico, due to an exemption passed by the US Congress (but without Puerto Rican representation in that Congress), cities and public corporations cannot do so. The Puerto Rican courts tried to remedy that law, but US federal courts struck it down.

The debt crisis is partially conditioned by Puerto Rico’s anomalous political status: within the United States, but also outside it. In 1898, Puerto Rico became a colony of the United States. Today, Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, which means that it has more autonomy, but it is still subject to certain controls by the US federal government and Congress without congressional representation. If you are a resident of Puerto Rico, the president can send you to war, but you cannot vote in presidential elections, and Congress can determine some laws for you, but you cannot elect a voting member of Congress.

Is austerity the solution? Debt forgiveness? Both or neither of these?

One measure being discussed is to allow Puerto Rican substate entities to declare bankruptcy. This is what some in the Puerto Rican government reportedly have been asking Congress to allow. Whether or not this would solve everything is unclear; most likely, it wouldn’t. But it might help. The problem is that Congress has very little incentive to do so, given Puerto Rico’s unique—and some might argue, inferior and dependent—political status within the United States. 

Another route towards a longer-term solution to the economic problem is for Puerto Rico’s quasi-colonial status to be changed. Puerto Rico’s nonvoting congressional delegate, Pedro R. Pierluisi, has argued that statehood is exactly the way out, and that argument merits serious attention.

How has Puerto Rico’s government performed in this crisis?

Puerto Rico’s status has not only contributed to the crisis, it also makes it much harder and more complex for Puerto Rico to dig itself out of the crisis. The fact that substate entities in Puerto Rico cannot declare bankruptcy limits their ability to manage the crisis and restructure debt. This is a huge problem: close to a third of Puerto Rico’s debt is held by cities and public corporations like the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

Puerto Rico’s status also means that the autonomy of Puerto Rico to solve the problem is severely limited: any solution will have to involve Congress, which could, for instance, pass legislation to allow Puerto Rican substate entities to declare bankruptcy like in other states. But Puerto Rico has no representation in Congress, nor does it have representation in the executive branch (since Puerto Rican residents cannot vote for the president). US financiers, who have money to lobby Congress, probably have an interest in preventing Puerto Rican substate entities from declaring bankruptcy, in some cases at least. Something of this influence of US financiers has already been seen. For example, Bloomberg Business reports that when the Puerto Rican government recently passed legislation to allow local corporations to restructure their debt, “bond funds affiliated with Franklin Resources Inc., Oppenheimer Rochester Funds, and Blue Mountain Capital Management LLC sued, contending the law was unconstitutional.”

Has the federal government been helpful?

Certainly the federal government affects the health of Puerto Rico’s economy: goods are incredibly expensive in Puerto Rico, and part of the reason why is that, due to the Jones Act in the early 20th century (which was one of the key laws passed by Congress for Puerto Rico’s status), goods coming into Puerto Rico from overseas (unlike goods coming into Massachusetts or other states of the Union) have to pass through a US port on the mainland first, and then be shipped to Puerto Rico.

Readers doubtless will be reminded of the Greek debt crisis. Are the two cases different?

Puerto Rico’s quasi-colonial status makes it different from Greece and its debt situation, because Puerto Rico is not a fully sovereign nation, and that status, as Pierluisi points out, has contributed in various ways to the making of the crisis. Not only has it made Puerto Rico a site of almost unbridled speculation for investors, it has prevented Puerto Rico from receiving various federal benefits and social protections (such as the Affordable Health Care Act, the child tax credit, and the earned-income tax credit) and thereby partially driving the Puerto Rican government’s need to borrow heavily.

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Puerto Rico Debt Crisis: America’s Greece?

  • Rich Barlow

    Senior Writer

    Photo: Headshot of Rich Barlow, an older white man with dark grey hair and wearing a grey shirt and grey-blue blazer, smiles and poses in front of a dark grey backdrop.

    Rich Barlow is a senior writer at BU Today and Bostonia magazine. Perhaps the only native of Trenton, N.J., who will volunteer his birthplace without police interrogation, he graduated from Dartmouth College, spent 20 years as a small-town newspaper reporter, and is a former Boston Globe religion columnist, book reviewer, and occasional op-ed contributor. Profile

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There are 5 comments on Puerto Rico Debt Crisis: America’s Greece?

  1. Thanks for insightful comments! It’s good to get a historical perspective on this issue. I do feel bad for the Puerto Ricans who must deal with this situation.

  2. This is a disgrace! We help out everyone else in foreign countries but do not help out our own? Disgraceful. Shame on President Obama! Puerto Rican lives matter.

    1. Sorry Andrea, but reflexive Obama-bashing doesn’t help to grasp Puerto Rico’s dilemma. Prof. Go clearly states here that key aspects of the long-term structural relationship between the US & PR are the major sources of problems. They all predate Obama by decades, even centuries; cf. the reference to the Jones Act above.

  3. I have a problem with people quoting Pierlusi. He just has one thing in mind, statehood. Well, actually two. He has statehood AND money in his mind.

    There is no easy way to our problem. Unless we clean out all government, replace all posts with new people with the mentality to serve the country and not themselves and their friends. Also I would eliminate the redundancies in the “Camara y Senado”. The heck, just eliminate these posts altogether, the do nothing.

    This is not solely the fault of the Jones Act or Rosello or even the colonial status (oppressing as it is), this is the result of years of neglect, splurge and bad decisions. Resources have been badly managed by many administrations and no one wants to sacrifice their Ferragamo shoes and their unnecessary escort detail to save the island.

  4. Despite the opinion of many Americans that the US is not an empire, Puerto Rico is nevertheless a US colony. Acknowledging this provides a useful framework for comprehending the Puerto Rican plight. Kudos to Julian Go for helping to advance our understanding.

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