New York - For an economy in crisis, aggravated by the damage caused by hurricane Maria and without access to financial markets, a plan for the investment in infrastructure, like the one President Donald Trump wants to promote, opens the eyes of the authorities and the private sector of Puerto Rico.
Along with his proposals on immigration -after a year of heavy rhetoric, controversy and faced with an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections- the infrastructure fund that Trump promoted was the focus of his first State of the Union Address.
"We will build new roads, bridges, highways, railways and improvements to maritime traffic. And we will do it with an American heart, American hands and American determination," Trump said Tuesday night.
The validity of these plans for the island and its effectiveness will depend on the details. The first reports are not very encouraging.
In his message, President Trump announced that the plan foresees an investment of $1.5 trillion in a decade. But that includes the contribution of local governments and even the possibility of public-private partnerships.
"Each federal dollar must be leveled in partnership with state and local governments and, when appropriate, taking advantage of private sector investment to permanently correct the infrastructure deficit," he said.
According to the leader of the Democratic minority of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, the reality is that the federal government would contribute $200 billion, that is, one seventh of the money that the White House aspires to invest.
"The president (Trump) presents himself as a man of great ideas and then presents a proposal of insignificant infrastructure, underestimating completely or ignoring the infrastructure challenges our country is facing," Pelosi said.
The matching requirements of local funds would take Puerto Rico -with its bankrupt government- to its worst financial moment.
"It would be a challenge. That is why we must wait to see the legislation, "said Resident commissioner in Washington, Jenniffer González, who recalled that, apart from the reconstruction plans presented by Governor Ricardo Rosselló, in 2017, the Puerto Rican government sent the White House a list of urgent infrastructure projects.
After the message, the Commissioner said that "the reconstruction of infrastructure and investment in jobs could start in Puerto Rico."
"We can be the place where programs start to rebuild better infrastructure and support new companies," she added.
Emilio Colón Zavala, president of the Puerto Rico Builders Association, said the urgency of funds to finance infrastructure projects was magnified after Hurricane Maria.
An analysis by the Builders Association, published at the end of 2017, indicates that between $15.5 billion and $19.5 billion will be required to put the island's infrastructure in order, including housing, renewing the power grid, telecommunications, water systems and transportation.
Just to rebuild and modernize the power grid, Governor Rosselló has asked Congress for $17 billion.
"If President Trump's proposal will depend on financing at local government level, we will have a problem" said Colón Zavala.
Commissioner Gonzalez said one of the possibilities is that the infrastructure fund becomes a block allocation and can be paired with other federal programs, such as the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The other window would be public-private partnerships.
In San Juan, Governor Rosselló said that they will seek to insert themselves into the fund the federal government creates, "so that, in addition to the (emergency) resources ... and the infrastructure transformation that we are going to have, Puerto Rico also participates in that (fund) to renew the entire infrastructure in the United States."
Today, Gonzalez will be in San Juan with HUD deputy secretary Pam Patenaude to announce an allocation related to one of the resolutions of supplementary funds to mitigate disasters that were already approved by Congress.
For any future allocation, the government of Puerto Rico may face the restrictions imposed by Congress following the Whitefish scandal, which have included requirements for FEMA or the Oversight Board to certify future disbursements.
"It will take a lot of lobbying," said Colón Zavala.
For developer and lawyer Juan Carlos Albors, "the president's announcement reinforces the need to speed up the national bankruptcy process that takes place in the federal Court," so that the government of Puerto Rico "can return to markets to finance new infrastructure."
During his presidential campaign, Trump said he would push forward a plan that would reach a trillion dollars.
According to the Axios publication, out of the $200 billion in federal funds to be invested in a decade, $100 billion would be incentives for local and state governments. Some $50 billion would go to rural infrastructure and another $20 billion for "transformative projects", which, because they seem very ambitious, usually have difficulties in obtaining private financing funds.
Trump's plan is a stark contrast to the federal funding for highway construction, which reaches 80%.
The White House will need Democratic votes to pass a bill for the regular procedure in the Senate, divided 51 to 49. "Democrats are just as interested as the Republicans in infrastructure. We need to get a bipartisan project that can get 60 votes in the Senate, and we are working to achieve it," U.S. Economic Council Director Gary Cohn told Fox.
In his speech, President Trump made a very brief reference to the recent natural disasters, without appealing for the reconstruction or the approval of the resolution of supplementary allocations pending in Senate, as some expected.
"To all those who are still recovering in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, California and everywhere, we are with you, we love you, and we will pull through together, always" Trump said, who told the message with 40% popularity, the lowest percentage recorded for a White House tenant in his first year.
Puerto Rican Democratic lawmakers Nydia Velázquez and Luis Gutiérrez, and the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz -who was invited to the message by Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand- critized that Trump did not refer to his public policy to address the emergency in Puerto Rico, where a third of the population still does not have power.
"Puerto Rico is a metaphor for how this president sees all Latinos and people of color: he does not see us as equals and does not see us as human beings ... Probably, he thinks of Puerto Rico as just another 'shitty country'," said Gutiérrez, referring to the phrase attributed to Trump when he expressed criticism to immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries.
Gonzalez said she would have preferred that Trump "were more specific and recognized the people who have helped save lives," but that, "at least," he made a brief mention.
Gonzalez has insisted in recent days that the leader of the Democratic minority of the Senate, Charles Schumer, has the resolution of supplementary assignments to mitigate disasters “as hostage”, by stating that he uses it as a negotiating token on the issue of normalizating the lives of the undocumented brought to the US by their parents, the so-called "dreamers".
But Gonzalez acknowledges that there are not necessarily concrete agreements yet on issues that the House did not include in its resolution passed in December, such as significant Medicaid allocations, or the efforts of island authorities to amend language that imposes restrictions on the government of Puerto Rico to have access to emergency funds.
Regarding Medicaid, Gonzalez said that "Republicans and Democrats agree to increase the amount." "Everything is in the air for DACA, an issue that I agree has to be resolved," Gonzalez said, referring to the decree that allowed "dreamers" to work in the US and normalize their lives, repealed by Trump, with total effectiveness, on March 5.
Trump also dedicated his message to defending his offer to Congress on an immigration reform that would allow 1.8 million people to obtain US citizenship.
But, while he spoke in favor of the US unity, he used legal and illegal immigration as a mirror of the violence in this country, annoying the groups that work in favor of the "dreamers" and complicating negotiations with Democrats in Congress.
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