Old Habits Die Hard: Neo-Liberal Colonialism and Worsening Debt Peonage in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico’s governor Alejandro García Padilla met with 350 representatives of the island’s creditors on Monday, after he announced that it could no longer pay its debts. In an interview with The New York Times, he admitted: “The debt is not payable. There is no other option. I would love to have an easier option. This is not politics, this is math.”

Puerto Rico’s non-voting member of the US Congress, Pedro Pierluisi of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, is sponsoring a bill to grant Puerto Rico bankruptcy protection along the lines of Detroit’s while it negotiates with its creditors, but the bill has been sidelined by Republicans on the Judiciary Committee. The Puerto Rican administration has already cut pension payments, raised property and small business taxes, increased water and gas prices, and laid off government workers. Now unemployment is more than twice the U.S. national rate, and its poverty level is nearly double that of the poorest U.S. state, leading to high rates of crime.

Over half of Puerto Rico’s $73 billion debt is owed to hedge fund investors like the politically-connected Andrew Feldstein of BlueMountain Capital, Mark Gallogly of Centerbridge Partners, Paul Tudor Jones, closely involved in the conspiracy to oust the president of the University of Virginia, and John Paulson, principal investor in the Banco Popular and better known for making a killing by shorting subprime mortgages in 2008. Like Greece’s, Puerto Rico’s future lies in the hands of its creditors: Feldstein successfully sued in federal court last year to overturn a Puerto Rican law that would have allowed the electric authority to file for bankruptcy.

From 2006 to 2013, Wall Street financial firms and lawyers raked in around $1.4 billion in fees from selling $61 billion worth of Puerto Rico’s bonds, according to the Wall Street Journal, giving the island more debt per person than any state in the US. The bonds were highly popular with wealthy investors since they are free of federal, state and local taxes. John Paulson, for example, is investing $1 billion in Puerto Rican real estate to build high-end resorts and luxury homes for members of the one percent aiming to use island residency to avoid federal taxes. Puerto Ricans will see no benefits, and will be paying the taxes that Paulson’s buyers are legally avoiding: their sales tax has just been hiked from 7% to 11.5%. It is a monstrous version of the tienda de raya in the old sugar cane plantations, where workers had to buy groceries on the credit that the patrón granted in his store because their wages were so low, thus living perpetually in debt. [José Manuel García Leduc, Apuntes para una historia breve de Puerto Rico, San Juan: Editorial Isla Negra, 2003:202]

2006 is a key date in the growth of Puerto Rico’s debt load. The US Congress allowed tax breaks for manufacturers based on the island to expire, who promptly exited together with the jobs they supported. This encouraged more emigration to the mainland in search of work, shrinking the tax base and leading the government to borrow more funds to cover its budget. Because of Puerto Rican bonds’ tax advantages, there was a high level of demand for government debt, irrespective of Puerto Rico’s economic situation. Austerity measures only shrank the economy and led to more emigration: between 2005 and 2013, Puerto Rico lost 5.5 percent of its population.

After Governor Luis Muñoz Marin’s creation of the Commonwealth Status for the island in the 1950s (the paradoxical “Estado Libre Asociado”), in the latter half of the twentieth century, Puerto Rico benefited from post-war prosperity, but to a much smaller extent than the US, and the persistent economic downturns since the collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement in the 1970s hit the island harder and longer. Adding to its economic problems are the under-capitalization of agriculture and the need to import most of its food: according to Puerto Rico’s business authority, “even though the island faces an unemployment rate of about 15%, half of its coffee crop hasn’t been harvested in recent years due to a shortage of laborers, representing a loss of about $17 million a year. Yet in the metropolitan areas, there are tens of thousands of people unemployed and willing to work.” Manufacturing, which is still the largest sector of the economy, was hit by the US’s push for free trade agreements  – exports to Latin American and Caribbean countries covered by the agreements fell by 15 percent, further contracting the economy.

Puerto Rico’s ambiguous status as a commonwealth means there is no provision for bankruptcy protections for its public utilities. But even bankruptcy, which governor Padilla is trying to persuade Congress to allow, would mean further cuts and privatization of public assets. Although the process would prioritize payments to Wall Street creditors ahead of expenditures on social programs and pensions, it would also impose losses on the hedge funds. For that reason, they are likely to use a barrage of court challenges and their political leverage with Congress to prevent it happening.

Former IMF officials recently produced a report recommending the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s debt by eliminating public school teachers, raising property taxes and suspending minimum wage laws. It also demands the creation of a “fiscal oversight board,” an unelected authority that will remove the government’s already limited sovereignty. While Padilla is attempting to mobilize the Puerto Rican diaspora to pressure US politicians to allow bankruptcy, his administration has hired one of the report’s authors – Anne Krueger, the IMF’s former first deputy managing director – as a consultant.

Some US presidential candidates are floating the idea of statehood as a solution for the island’s problems, which would automatically allow the same bankruptcy provisions as other states. However, this is also likely to be opposed by the hedge fund billionaires and by Puerto Rico’s own oligarchs, who prefer the current status because it allows them to avoid taxes and federal regulations. So the future of Puerto Rico is to be decided by Wall Street and the US courts, leaving its people powerless – with the connivance of its own government – a new form of colonial exploitation enforced through debt peonage.

Juan Gonzalez pointed out on Democracy Now that since the US invaded in 1898, its corporations have taken huge amounts of profit out of the island, but now Puerto Ricans are being told that they have to pay for the debt themselves. “For the first 50 years, it was the sugar barons with their plantations in Puerto Rico. Then, the next 50 years, it was the pharmaceutical and the textile companies using Puerto Rico as a tax haven, made it the biggest source of profit to American companies in the world. And now you have the hedge funds and the banks that have been peddling all this debt to Puerto Rico for the last few decades and now are demanding payment before anything else.”

Although Puerto Ricans don’t face a collapse of their banks, they have in common with Greeks the fact that people of both countries face starvation austerity being enforced through treaties and legal shackles in order to extract the last ounce of exchange value from them. Elected governments are expected to discipline the population to accept this onslaught from the banks, whatever the public may vote for.

Many Puerto Ricans find their economic dependence on the US problematic. At the same time, however, there are multiple ties between the island and the mainland. The diaspora is the key to asserting political leverage: today, there are more Puerto Ricans in the US than on the island. While within Puerto Rico citizens are disenfranchised, in the US they are increasingly integrated across all classes and constitute an influential minority among Latinos, with Supreme Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor the most visible example of their growing political clout.

There can be no resolution of the perennial question of statehood unless the US itself abandons its racist treatment of Spanish speaking people and accepts a relation of equality, one of respect for Puerto Ricans as a people and a nation. For more than a century, Puerto Rico has been treated like a colony, and the latest round of austerity reiterates the view held by US and Puerto Rican elites of the island. Puerto Ricans in the US can unite with the struggle of other Americans for an end to the rule of the one percent to assert the rights of persons in Puerto Rico and the United States to a livelihood, dignity, and cultural patrimony against the predations of the plutocrats. Time to close down the tienda de raya.


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Filed under debt peonage, Hedge Fund managers, latinos, Puerto Rico, unemployment

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