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José Caraballo, president of the Association of Economists of Puerto Rico. (Supplied)
José Caraballo, president of the Association of Economists of Puerto Rico. (Supplied)

Orlando, Florida - A devastating storm hit Puerto Rico, leaving it adrift, and it was not Hurricane Maria. Those winds combined and, over several years, they aligned to generate a whirlwind that put the Island on its knees.

Those gusty winds have been blowing for more than 10 years, and they have taken with them hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have flown to other places, they have destroyed businesses and halted the economic growth of the island.

However, something remained: the hope of restoring Puerto Rico and drawing a new island on the blanck canvas left by this crisis.

Two economists and a social scientist are the authors of the book "Population, Migration, and Socioeconomic Outcomes among Island and Mainland Puerto Ricans: La Crisis Boricua” which was published at the end of 2017 and comes to light at a time when the island is going through a historic turning point. 

Economist Marie T. Mora, native of New Mexico; economist Alberto Dávila, a native of Texas, and the sociologist Havidán Rodríguez, who is from Arecibo, witnessed how what would have been a chapter for an study on the migratory and socioeconomic situation of the island became, little by little, an extensive and detailed book that explains the factors that led Puerto Rico to the current crisis.

The authors' analysis is supported by substantial data, an element that is often scarce in the debates regarding athe Puerto Rican crisis.

The book went to press a few days before the hurricane devastated the island. Thus, the nightmarish picture painted by the authors is based on a pre-cyclonic scenario. It is a fact that the economic, social and migratory situation became more serious after María, the authors agreed in separate interviews.

The book shows important findings: that one out of every four Puerto Ricans who have emigrated to the United States continues to live under poverty levels; contrary to what has been reported, most of those who have left are not skilled or profesional. However, this sector has been joining the current migration wave as the crisis worsened. Also, that between 2006 and 2014, about 215,000 Puerto Ricans returned to Puerto Rico, but during the same period 445,536 Puerto Ricans left the island, and that the current crisis has not only increased migration, but also dispersed the Puerto Rican diaspora in a score of states, beyond the traditional destinations such as New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, among others.

According to the authors the net number of emigrants is higher if the period between 2002 and 2016 is considered: 646,932 people (16.5 percent of the population). This figure, they say, represents the greatest population loss since 1898, when the island became a territory of the United States.

The book also highlights that women emigrate more than men; that the educational issue is one of the factors Puerto Ricans consider when deciding where to emigrate; that there is a high tendency among Puerto Ricans to open businesses in the United States, and that in Puerto Rico the population is aging fast, not only because of the low birth rate, but because young people are leaving the island.

Portrait of the crisis

Like an instant photo, they portray the humanitarian crisis that was forged for years, specifically from 2006, when all the ingredients for that "perfect storm" were together. Many had been predicting that storm for years. They were factors that changed the demographic and socioeconomic scenario of the Puerto Ricans on both sides of the sea.

These factors include the imposition of a Tax on Sales and Use (SUT), an element that, far from helping, impoverished the working class; the end of Section 936 - which provided tax incentives to companies that settled on the island, that caused the closure of companies that fled looking for more competitive markets.

Other factors are the furlough plan for the government, the high cost of electricity, the collapse in the housing market, the loss of bank assets, the general deterioration in infrastructure, problems in the education system and poor healthcare services. This last one due to the gradual loss of doctors and specialists, many of whom have also left the island.

Its effects affect not only the 3.3 million Puerto Ricans on the island, but it has implications for the more than five million residing in the United States who face the responsibility to speak for Puerto Rico and for those who live there. 

"As part of this reserach, we made several trips to the island, and, in my case, they were not only professional trips, but emotional as well, I visited the places where I grew up, studied and worked," said Rodriguez, president of the University of Albany. , in New York (SUNY).

"The problems of Puerto Rico did not develop overnight, and they increased with economic and political changes. What we did was trying to put a bandage on the wound without looking at the reasons that led to that crisis, "said the sociologist. "The book does not really discover anything new. It puts in context, and with data, the reasons that tooks us here,” he reiterated.

Rodriguez said that with the book -which, far from being technical and sophisticated, is simple and easy to understand-, they seek to provoke a multisectoral discussion, to create a kind of permanent forum on the island and abroad to reach concrete strategies that improve the economic and labor situation and stop the current migratory pattern.

The book highlights the potential of Puerto Ricans in the United States as a force that, if it goes out to vote, will influence the decisions of congress members that may affect the island, said Mora. It is a power that residents do not have on the island and that they acquire just by moving, she said.

All that along with proposals to strengthen the work sector, emerge as some of the alternatives that Puerto Rico must look at even when the scope of action of the government is limited to the prerogatives of the Oversight Board, created by Congress under PROMESA federal Law.

"Unfortunately, it does not look like things will improve, and if migration continues, and the island's aging cycle continues, it will be much worse," said the labor economist, commenting on a study that indicates that it will not be until the end of 2034 that Puerto Rico will show symptoms of improvement, and if they did occur they would be similar to those that existed in 2006.

Mora said that one of the challenges of Puerto Rico is to implement a model of socioeconomic development at a time when the Board is the one that has the authority over fiscal matters.

"It is not in the hands of the government of Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, the Board does not have to account for what it does. I believe that, in the end, Congress will be responsible for what happens on the island, and that is why Puerto Ricans in the United States have to mobilize and take advantage of the fact that they can vote and that they have representation, especially in Florida, which is a swing state that can decide on the election result. Without the above, the people of the island will not have a voice, " she said.

Have you been called by representatives of the government of Puerto Rico to discuss the findings of this book? "El Nuevo Día asked.

"No, and that has been a surprise. But we hope that happens and we are available and very happy to be able to make a presentation, "said the professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

In the discussion about the search for solutions to the crisis of the island, there is a lack of historical analysis of the causes that led to this socioeconomic trap, Rodríguez and Mora agreed.

"The risk of not reviewing what happened, of not analyzing the things that happened, is high. If we do not know where the symptoms came from, how are we going to treat the disease? And that is what happens, that we are treating the symptoms without thinking in the long term, without knowing the impact that decisions will have, without looking at social, economic or political aspects, "said Rodríguez.

"Looking at this from outside the island, people do not seem to be discussing the real problems. And if we do not analyze the elements that led to this crisis, the island could repeat them, "Mora added.

Alberto Dávila, an economist and co-author of the book, is from the school that thinks that the crisis in Puerto Rico is not permanent and that natural market forces will correct or reverse by themselves. 

"I think that the same market forces will make Puerto Ricans in the United States begin to return to the island and there will be a natural rebirth. Any intervention in that process could have unexpected and not necessarily good consequences, "said the Associate Dean of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

"Look at the case of Japan and Germany after the Second World War. They were at the bottom of the crisis. Economic models indicate that when an economy is at the bottom, then it tends to recover and rise quickly. Being at the bottom and staying there is not consistent with economic theories. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and there is light because in the case of Puerto Rico, we are already at the end of that tunnel, "he said.