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Representatives from PA for Puerto Rico at a press conference at Taller Puertorriqueño on Monday. Photo: AL DÍA News

PA coalition lobbies for debt-crushed Puerto Rico to 'determine its own fate'

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The newly formed coalition PA for Puerto Rico will be going to Washington on Wednesday to lobby Congress over the fate of cash-strapped Puerto Rico. On Monday, a group of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania legislators joined the national rally cry to provide aid to the U.S. territory, whose debt crisis is nearing the death spiral.

PA for Puerto Rico lists three demands, all of which they argue can be achieved through President Obama’s executive order without congressional approval:

  1. Let Puerto Rico declare bankruptcy and restructure its debt.

  2. Remove inequities in Medicaid and healthcare coverage.

  3. Expand tax credits to help boost the island’s economy.

“Let Puerto Rico determine its own fate,” said State Rep. Angel Cruz. “It’s convenient for all.”

The problem is as complicated as it is bleak:

The U.S. territory’s debt now stands at $72 billion. This week the government is expected to make another payment of $354 million, and while it may cobble together the money, Governor Alejandro Padilla has called the total sum of the debt “unpayable.”

Meanwhile, the island contends with a devastated economy and health care system, causing hundreds of families to move to the mainland every month in what is now routinely referred to as a diaspora.

By 2013, there were more Puerto Ricans settled on the U.S. mainland (5.1 million) than there were on the island (3.5 million), and Census Bureau expects the country’s population to fall below 3 million by the year 2050.

For months officials have been warning that Puerto Rico’s situation is on the brink of “humanitarian crisis,” and members of Puerto Rico for PA echoed that sentiment at a press conference in North Philadelphia’s barrio on Monday.

“The crisis is not five years from now,” Angel Ortiz said. “The crisis is in three weeks. In January, Puerto Rico runs out of money — period — and will not be able to pay its debt. They will have to lay off teachers, they will not be able to pay pensions.”

Ortiz added that there would be “a ripple effect” if Puerto Rico fails. State Rep. Angel Cruz Cruz introduced a resolution asking Congress to remove the “territory” status from the island, but the debt crisis requires a more immediate solution.

Two months ago, Taller Puertorriqueño, a Latino cultural institution in North Philadelphia, hosted a meeting that led to the formation of PA for Puerto Rico. Among the local representatives are Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, former Councilman Angel Ortiz, and State Reps. Angel Cruz, Leslie Acosta and Kevin Boyle.

The group argues that bad tax policy created the problem in Puerto Rico today, and a change in territory law prevents them from getting out of it. Just twenty years ago, the island had fiscal control over its own bankruptcy.

“Twenty years ago we would be able to do what we’re asking Congress to allow us to do now,” Quiñones-Sánchez said. “We’re not asking for anything we did not have in the past.”

The councilwoman noted that the Hispanic Caucus and the Puerto Rican Caucus gave the Obama administration “critical votes” to pass Obamacare with the condition that the administration would deal with Puerto Rico’s health care inequities — namely that the island receives half the rate of federal healthcare funding, but pays its full share of Medicare tax. Washington has not delivered, they say.

Even Puerto Rico’s two largest political parties —  Partido Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive Party) and Partido Popular Democrático (Popular Democratic Party) — are united against Congress’ inaction.

“Obviously there is a divide among the two major parties,” Angel Ortiz said. “But in terms of the issues that are before Congress there is uncommon unity.”

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