Join ‘United for Puerto Rico’ in Philly
As the Democratic National Convention prepares to roll into Philadelphia, Puerto Ricans from all over the country are gathering to make their voices heard. With a crippling debt, dwindling population and indifferent policymakers, Puerto Rico is perched dangerously close to a crumbling precipice.
Enough is enough, advocates say. In answer to what many perceive is a weak Congressional response to the ongoing crisis, organizers plan to welcome Democrats and their delegates with a massive march on opening day of the DNC, which happens to coincide with Puerto Rico’s Constitution Day.
The United for Puerto Rico rally hopes to attract between 5,000 and 10,000 attendees who will march from North Philadelphia to Thomas Paine Plaza in an effort to stimulate awareness and action from elected leaders. Marchers will come in from Chicago, New York, New Jersey and even Orlando.
“The U.S. needs to decolonize and let Puerto Rico build its own economy,” says Pennsylvania for Puerto Rico representative Nilda Ruiz. “If it is a part of the U.S. and a territory, then it should have the same parity that the [federal government] has.”
When Congress passed the PROMESA bill – short for the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act – earlier this summer, Puerto Rico effectively became an official U.S. colony. A seven-member, bipartisan oversight board was established to supervise all fiscal planning for the island instead of allowing local officials to oversee the negotiations. This new board has the power to issue subpoenas, seek judicial enforcement and impose penalties. It also has the authority to implement procedures that would allow Puerto Rico to restructure its debt and adjust its payment plan. The oversight board’s power trumps that of locally elected lawmakers. In essence, PROMESA puts the island’s future in the hands of outsiders.
Last week, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was appointed to the task force, which will supervise negotiations with creditors and the courts to reduce debt. A Cuban-American, Rubio calls the crisis “very severe.”
“It’s clear they will not only have to cut their way out of this mess, they are going to have to grow their way out of it,” he said at a press conference last week. “While much of Puerto Rico’s current problems stem from poor leadership in San Juan, there has been neglect from Washington.”
That neglect is taking on a whole new face as Puerto Rico dives further into colonial status. While the federal minimum wage across mainland United States had held steady at $7.25 since 2009, PROMESA drops it to just $4.50 for Puerto Rico residents between the ages of 18 and 21. Compare that to the District of Columbia, also a U.S. territory, which raised its minimum wage to $9.50 in 2014.
Ruiz worries that significantly lowering wages will further drive young and ambitious citizens away from their homeland. Already, the island is neck deep in a crippling brain drain as its work force flocks to the economically promising shores of mainland United States. Left behind are their aging parents or grandparents, many of whom struggle to meet daily needs.
In 2014, an estimated 84,000 people left Puerto Rico, a 38 percent increase from 2010, according to the Pew Research Center. The number of people moving to Puerto Rico also declined during the same time period. As of 2013, there were more Puerto Ricans living on the mainland – approximately 5.1 million – than on the island itself, which has a population of about 3.5 million people. One of the children’s hospitals on the island currently has 70 vacancies. Once upon a time, this same hospital would receive three applications per open slots, Ruiz says.
“They are basically telling young people to leave the island,” she adds. “The cost of living is the same as here, so the island is emptying out, the professionals are leaving, and the ones that stay there are the ones with the least means.”
As poverty grows, Ruiz maintains Congress has not done enough to help the people of Puerto Rico.
“They have this master-slave, parent-child relationship,” she says. “They need to let go and let the Puerto Rican people for themselves.”
Meanwhile inside the Beltway, lawmakers continue to congratulate each other on the passage of PROMESO despite acknowledging that the bill falls short.
“It’s not, in and of itself, going to be sufficient to solve all the problems that Puerto Rico faces,” President Barack Obama said after signing the legislation.
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton echoed a similar sentiment: “This bill is by no means perfect, and I continue to have serious concerns about some of the provisions it contains. That’s why, as this bill is implemented, I will continue to stand with the people of Puerto Rico and ensure that the oversight board created by this legislation is made up of members who will act in the best interest of Puerto Ricans, and protect.”
Organizers behind the United for Puerto Rally plan to put this promise to the test when the presumed democratic nominee comes to town next week.
The rally will take place at the Thomas Paine Plaza Across from City Hall at 1401 John F. Kennedy Blvd., and will run from 2 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. At the rally, there will be representatives from around the country speaking on the crisis and what actions the community can take to help Puerto Rico thrive in the future. There will also be special performances from Bomberos de la Calle, Danny Rivera and Limi-T21. Also a Special Appearance by Ana Ortiz! All members of the public are invited to attend. Those attendees who are not registered to vote are asked to bring their driver’s license or social security number to register at the rally. For more information, please visit Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/PA4PR or email at [email protected].