New economic plan for Puerto Rico promises ‘a cruel ordeal through austerity’

By Berta Joubert-Ceci 
November 6, 2018

Jurors at the International Tribunal on U.S. Colonial Crimes in Puerto Rico, Oct. 27 in New York.

“The people of Puerto Rico need and deserve plentiful good jobs, a dynamic and prosperous economy, affordable and reliable electricity, and an efficient and responsive public sector.” That is how the summary of the draft of the Fiscal Control Board’s new fiscal plan for Puerto Rico begins — like a fairy tale. Titled “Restoring Growth and Prosperity” and dated Oct. 23, it was published on the Board’s (called Junta in Puerto Rico) website,

But this tale, conceived by armies of consultants and law firms, mostly based in the United States, who charge millions to people who “deserve a good economy,” reveals a cruel austerity process that would destroy the Puerto Rican people’s very future.

Enclosed in air-conditioned offices, these consultants add and subtract the future of a people, expressed in multicolored graphics representing human lives reduced to simple numbers, who have to adjust to the Junta’s Machiavellian projections.

This is how the consultants determine, for example, that the University of Puerto Rico — the only public higher education entity in the archipelago and the institution that prepares its future — will be dismembered, rendered useless and ultimately destroyed. The only goal is to save money that the consultants will eventually use to pay the bondholders of the massive public debt of $74 billion.

Founded in 1903, the UPR has great international prestige. It has provided the intellectual and scientific support for advances made in the colony despite the obstacles of colonization. The UPR is where U.S. agencies such as NASA recruit scientists for their projects; this brain drain is one more way of stealing from the people who subsidize these studies in the hope of achieving a more promising future.

Not only does the UPR prepare professionals for the development of the country, it is also an important source of critical thinking and active resistance against the neoliberal policies that for several decades the local government, at the behest of its colonizing master, has tried to implement in Puerto Rico.

UPR promotes social justice

The UPR has also been a leveling agent of social justice, where the students with the least money can achieve their dreams of university studies without the heavy debt that their peers carry in the United States.

Now that will change if the Fiscal Control Board gets its way. Part of its plan is to increase tuition. In the next academic year, each credit will cost $115, an increase of $57. For students who can barely pay for their studies now, and who benefit from self-managed projects such as Community Cafeterias (Comedores Sociales), this increase will mean that continuing their studies will be impossible.

The Community Cafeterias emerged as a voluntary initiative of students who saw that many of their peers did not have enough money to maintain adequate nutrition. In these cafeterias the students pay what they can and thus have at least one guaranteed hot meal a day.

Besides increasing the cost per credit, the austerity measure for the UPR projects a decrease in the payroll of both teaching and nonteaching employees, a decrease in their pensions, the elimination of the Christmas bonus, an adjustment in payments for sick days, and a cut in the university’s contribution to the medical plan. These measures add up to impoverishing the working class of the UPR and its professors, leading them to a poor and insecure old age.

Not content with these devastating plans, the dictatorial Junta proposes the elimination of jobs and the reduction of the number of students and of university campuses.

Currently, the UPR consists of 11 campuses distributed throughout the island, including the Medical Sciences campus. The restructuring proposal contemplates the conglomeration by 2023 of the 11 campuses into three groups, plus the Medical Sciences campus. Within this plan, there would also be the anarchic elimination of subjects and specialties.

This reorganization, like all measures outlined by the Junta, has been put together without considering the needs of the people, without public hearings, and by ignoring proposals for savings by Puerto Rican specialists. The only criteria has been to pay the bondholders by economizing through elimination of services

All these measures will have the effect of preventing people’s access to higher studies. Only the wealthiest class will be able to take advantage of them. Poverty will deepen at all levels.

If we add the impact of closing public schools — generally those that served the poorest sectors and those in the mountains — the result is that people with no possibility of education at any level, poor and desperate, will seek flight as refugees to the United States, increasing the depopulation of Puerto Rico.

Its Department of Education is now under the control of a U.S. mercenary, Secretary of Education Julia Keleher. Although not all the plans have yet been put into practice, already Keleher has, literally, blood on her hands. A few days ago, a teacher committed suicide as a result of the harassment and anarchic “educational” reforms imposed by the department.

Tribunal on U.S. Colonial Crimes against Puerto Rico

A portion of the International Tribunal on U.S. Colonial Crimes against Puerto Rico, held in New York City on Oct. 27, featured Puerto Ricans presenting testimonies on the state of the economy.

National hero Rafael Cancel Miranda discussed the dictatorial role of the Junta. After mentioning some of the dictators imposed by the U.S., like Batista in Cuba, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and Pinochet in Chile, he said that in Puerto Rico, the U.S. imposed not just one dictator, but a dictatorial board composed of seven members.

Economist Dr. Martha Quiñones Domínguez, who is also a UPR professor and president of Women Economists, presented a magnificent exposition of how U.S. colonial power in PR has been expressed in successive laws that have consolidated the legal framework for domination over the people. This includes military domination, the usurpation of land and the imposition of decisions against the welfare of the people, up to the current forced bankruptcy.

The latest of these laws is PROMESA, approved in 2016 by the U.S. Congress during President Barack Obama’s administration. This law established the dictatorial Junta. Dr. Quiñones showed how during the 1970s, when there was a resurgence of the independence movement, the U.S. created a dependency through federal “aid” to defeat anti-colonial resistance.

Rolando Emmanuelli Jiménez, an expert on the PROMESA Law and author of the book on the topic, testified on why it was imposed. Given the colonial condition of PR, the law expedites wealth extraction, the goal of U.S. colonial rule. He explained how Puerto Rico went bankrupt: “It cannot meet the levels of indebtedness it had to incur in order to subsidize direct foreign investment by United States investors.

“Puerto Rico built roads, prepared engineers, employees, gave subsidies, gave tax exemptions based on indebtedness, and these companies extract profits of the order of $34 billion annually that are taken from PR with no contributions. Therefore, this imbalance where the government has to borrow to invest in roads, in services for this type of investment. …

“That imbalance caused the colony to collapse and led to creating this Junta; but the problem with this Junta is not only that it imposes austerity measures to pay the creditors of the bonds. It also destroyed the limited scope of local government the U.S. Congress delegated to Puerto Rico based on Law 600 of the federal Congress of 1952 that allowed PR to establish a constitution.”

Odious debt

For his part, José Nicolás Medina Fuentes, an expert on odious debt and author of the book on it, testified about how the “problem of the odious colonial-territorial public debt that is being imposed on the people of Puerto Rico is of a political character.

“Odious debt is a recognized legal concept … it is a debt or a loan contract that occurs in a series of situations of great injustice for the affected populations. … [A]n emblematic example of odious debt is the Cuban public debt to Spain [as of 1898]. … In the Treaty of Paris in … the deliberations of the Spanish commissions and the U.S. commission prior to the signing of the Treaty of Paris, one of the most controversial judgments during those negotiations was the issue of Cuba’s colonial debt.

“On the one hand, the Spanish commissioners claimed that if they were going to cede some possessions, if they were going to renounce sovereignty over Cuba, then Cuba’s territorial public debt had to be assumed by the U.S. or by the Cuban people. And the U.S. commissioners were emphatic in saying that this debt was not a debt of the Cuban territorial treasury, but a debt of the Spanish treasury. … In a colonial relationship, the public debt is the responsibility of the colonial power.

“That was the solution of the Cuban public debt in the Treaty of Paris.”

Therefore, the PR debt is the responsibility of the U.S. colonial power.

Tribunal verdict

The verdict of the Oct. 27 Tribunal regarding the economy of PR concluded with the following points:

That this colonial imposition, through the so-called Fiscal Control Board, is directly responsible for the disastrous conditions that still exist in Puerto Rico more than a year after Hurricane Maria. U.S. corporations and banks, under the pretext of helping with reconstruction, have expropriated billions of dollars from the treasury, creating a humanitarian crisis.

That this colonial imposition has used the hurricane as a pretext to promote the U.S. government’s deep-rooted neoliberal and right-wing policies to privatize fundamental social services and destroy labor movements, especially in the fields of education and electricity.

And that the U.S. government imposed protocols that allowed and encouraged the corporate plundering of Puerto Rico’s natural resources and wealth, and the exploitation of Puerto Rican labor, promoting the myth and legend that Puerto Rico owes something to the U.S. government; in fact, the U.S. government and U.S. corporations owe an extraordinary debt to the people of Puerto Rico.

The Tribunal’s demands on the U.S. government were three:

  1. The government of the United States acknowledges and apologizes for the aforementioned crimes against the Puerto Rican people.
  2. The United States surrenders all property and power taken by force from the Puerto Rican people.
  3. The United States pays reparations to the victims of the crime of colonialism.

(Photo: Joseph Piette)