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Puerto Rico's landscape in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. EFE
Puerto Rico's landscape in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. EFE

Puerto Rico Is On Its Own

It's clear Puerto Rico is going to have to recover without help from the federal government.

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Earlier this month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency informed the Puerto Rican government that it might withhold Puerto Rico's share of $4.9 billion in pre-approved disaster loans because Puerto Rico's cash balances are too high. 

Indeed, FEMA is concluding its mission in Puerto Rico on Wednesday, turning over its remaining food and water supplies to the Puerto Rican government to finish distributing – a move that some on the island say is coming too soon, as a third of residents still lack electricity and, in some places, running water. 

Steps like these are an insulting slap in the face to the struggling Puerto Rican people, many of whom I saw last week while there on business. It has been four months since Hurricane Maria hit the island, yet Puerto Rico is still economically, socially and psychologically devastated. The recovery period has been very slow and arduous, leaving the people and the island in a state of panic, destruction and despair. 

With so many citizens bereft of electricity, thousands of businesses continue to close. Hotels, restaurants, local bodegas and mega shopping centers are shutting down seemingly every day. Thousands of people are unemployed and – now that mortgage and loan moratoriums have ended – home owners are not going to be able to make payments and will lose their houses. Desperation is growing.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S., the media has moved on from Puerto Rico and the devastation of Hurricane Maria. Few realize the awful conditions that still exist in Puerto Rico. Things have not gotten better – even after all this time.

It is within this framework, that I believe that Puerto Ricans more than ever, need to confront a very serious reality. 

Like my father used to say, it is time to tighten our belts because the ride is going to be very turbulent. Puerto Ricans must begin to put together a new economic recovery plan without depending on U.S. federal government resources. If Puerto Rico is going to turn things around, Puerto Ricans need to lead the effort.

Things will not change overnight. It is going to be a long recovery period and we must learn from other economies of scale in the world to help turn things around.

Puerto Ricans must begin to put together a new economic recovery plan without depending on U.S. federal government resources.

To be clear, Puerto Rico was in bad economic shape before Hurricane Maria. Years of mismanagement created a huge deficit. Maria made a bad situation even worse.

In order for a new Puerto Rico to emerge, we must rebuild while also addressing the lack of sustainable development in our local economy. Then we need new strategies to reverse the most acute problems: the growing emigration of good talent to the US, high unemployment, infrastructure deficiencies, housing shortages and environmental concerns. 

We can begin fixing things by following the examples of the local community development efforts that are working and sustainable. During these difficult times, we see the Center for Puerto Rico working with local business to provide a recovery programs for those that need it the most: the small business communities and entrepreneurs throughout the island. The Center for Puerto Rico has helped artists, restaurant owners and retailers in poor communities get on their feet. 

Another great example of local community efforts is in the community of San Sebastian, where local structures have been erected to restore electrical services to the people of their town. Another is the municipality of Adjuntas, which has begun a new program for renewable energy to support local municipalities to take control of rehabilitating their own infrastructure. Local control seems to be working for these municipalities as they take their economic future into their hands. 

The private sector also needs to step up to the plate. At a time when the U.S. federal government has abandoned Puerto Rico, the private sector can provide leadership, intervention and innovation. It needs to be proactive and call for plans of action to support the recovery period. 

The cost of reconstruction of the island is going to be long and expensive. The new Puerto Rico is going to need new models of investment and innovation. We cannot continue to depend on Washington's help.

As I visited San Juan street festivals this weekend, I saw many local social and business entrepreneurs selling and promoting their local businesses to the community. 

People from all over the world need to see this new infusion of energy, assets, social, human and economic capital. More importantly, I have seen a new spirit of the people who love their island. These people are the change agents whose talent, resiliency and faith can help a new Puerto Rico emerge. Our people are our best resource we have – with or without the help of the U.S. government.

This article was originally published by U.S. News & World Report on Jan. 31, 2018
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