Two years after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, the issues confronting Puerto Rico are vast and dire.
For one, Wanda Vázquez, who became governor after an unprecedented social movement forced the ousting of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, is revamping the administration leadership and responding to public demands for increased transparency to curtail corruption.
Just days after she was appointed governor, Ahsha Tribble, FEMA’s former deputy administrator for the region that includes Puerto Rico, and Donald Keith Ellison, the former president of Cobra Acquisitions that received $1.8 billion in federal contracts to repair Puerto Rico’s electrical grid, were indicted for corruption.
This follows two other indictments of high profile members in former Gov. Rosselló’s administration. In short, corruption taints the administration of federal funds in Puerto Rico.
The issue of corruption is critical and has implications for federal post-disaster reconstruction funding assigned to the island. President Trump continues to falsely say that Congress had allocated $92 billion for recovery in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017 and accused the island’s political leadership of mismanagement and corruption. Congress has allocated less than half of that amount ($42.7 billion), with less than $14 billion reaching the island.
Puerto Rico is also expected to lose out on more than $400 million of planned projects for the building of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The Pentagon is defunding 13 projects at military installations in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, 10 of which were related to recovery from Hurricane Maria.
At a time when Puerto Rico and countless victims of Hurricane Maria and the austerity measures spearheaded by the island’s oversight board are in desperate need of assistance, over $29 billion of federal financial aid are tangled up in political bickering.
Additionally, the Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) of 2018 allocated $4.8 billion of additional temporary Medicaid funds to Puerto Rico to overcome the post Hurricane Maria health crisis. These funds expire at the end of September 2019, leaving only $366.7 million for Medicaid in 2020—a small fraction of what is needed to cover 1.6 million people affected, half the entire population of the island.
As if the newly appointed governor and Puerto Rico did not have enough challenges, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin informed Gov. Vazquez that the administration is taking steps to end Puerto Rico’s Act 154 federal tax benefits. This act collects a four percent excise tax on foreign corporations operating in Puerto Rico. In fiscal year 2019 these revenues account for 17.6 percent of the Commonwealth budget.
Finally, U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain, the federal judge in charge of the bankruptcy and debt restructuring case, suspended litigation for120 days after the ousting of Gov. Rosselló.
Swain’s litigation stay also put a hold on Puerto Rico Electric Power Company’s restructuring agreement with bondholders. This agreement presumably will reduce debt by 30 percent but would also increase electricity rates for consumers — already among the highest in the nation — over the next 47 years. It also prioritizes repayment of debt and precludes new investments in upgrading and modernizing the island’s electrical system.
Congressional action to support Puerto Rico has been spearheaded by a vigorous diaspora solidarity movement.
For the past few years, Centro – The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York City — has hosted a summit gathering leaders from Puerto Rico and the vast diaspora to discuss solutions for the island’s many problems. And let’s be frank. We may not always agree with each other, but we all seek to find common ground for the rebuilding efforts, and we need a space where we can discuss the issues affecting Puerto Rico.
The Summit acknowledges the second anniversary of Hurricane Maria, will examine the issues affecting Puerto Rico and prompt much needed discussion about finding the best solutions. We are proud to host this conference and help be a catalyst to change. We can do this together by incorporating many of the voices that exist on the political spectrum.
Centro convenes this summit in keeping with its institutional mission to link scholarly inquiry to social action and policy debates. We want Puerto Ricans from all walks of life to have the opportunity to take an active role in rebuilding Puerto Rico.