- Bold Policies for Puerto Rico: A Blueprint for Transformative, Justice-Centered Recovery
Well, this is what we owe you? I think it is you who owes us!—Residente, Calle 13, Interview, The Nation, 2018
Earlier this year, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a lead story underscoring the compound effects of the now 12-year-long debt crisis, and the recent devastation of Hurricane María (Zamudio-Suárez, 2018), on the University of Puerto Rico (UPR). Founded in 1903, shortly after the island passed into US control following the Spanish-Cuban-American War, UPR is among the largest public universities in the Caribbean, serving more than 55,000 students on 11 campuses, some of which were established through the 1862 Morrill Act, which created the first US land-grant colleges.
Recently, UPR has been subject to state-level austerity tied to the island’s growing debt, resulting in faculty and staff layoffs, declining student enrollment, and increased dependence on student tuition. In early 2017, faculty and student union groups protested as elected officials continued to cut the university system’s operating budget (see Robles, 2017b).1 Later in the year, María hit, and an already grossly underfunded institution was met with severe infrastructural calamity. The Chronicle paints a devastating picture of UPR’s campuses after María: power shortages and classes forced to meet under tarps (amid other infrastructural challenges), all while a network of underresourced student and faculty volunteers worked together for recovery.
At present, the deleterious effects on Puerto Rico’s flagship educational engine must be viewed in the context of a larger human-induced dual crisis. We use the experience of UPR as a prime example of the devastation inflicted upon the island’s many public goods. Climate change contributed to the catastrophic damage of two Category 5 hurricanes:2 María and Irma struck within weeks of each other in September 2017. The hurricanes intensified an economic crisis dating back more than a decade. As Mora, Dávila, and Rodríguez (2017) note, Puerto Rico already was confronting a prolonged humanitarian emergency before María because of its severe economic crisis—La Crísis Boricua—that had been ongoing since 2006.3
At a fundamental level, the extended Crísis Boricua cannot be viewed separately from the racialized colonial policies that dispossessed the Puerto Rican people of their own resources and economic potential and, simultaneously, severely limited the island’s sovereignty. Since the US invasion of the island in 1898, Puerto Rico’s role as a site of extraction has escalated with the primary purpose of benefiting the (mainland) United States while increasing the island’s dependence on the larger power (Lloréns, Santiago, Garcia-Quijano, & de Onis, 2018).4 The more recent wave of purportedly debt-driven austerity has spurred a new wave of net out-migration, the largest yet in Puerto Rico’s history, as well as high unemployment, declining labor-force participation, and the worsening of a host of other socioeconomic conditions (Mora et al., 2017; Mélendez & Hinojosa, 2017).
Given this backdrop, it is clear that any long-term solution must involve a change in political status for the island and a social-justice-based restitution of appropriated wealth. In this working blueprint, we center on redress, calling on the fiscal/ethical responsibility of the United States to engage in debt cancellation, thereby removing the pretended rationale for austerity.
We also call, as part of a larger public investment plan, for implementation of a locally administered, island-wide, permanent Puerto Rican Job Guarantee (PRJG), with specific intent to build, staff, and maintain a sustainable renewable-energy-based infrastructure. A living-wage-based PRJG would not only help [End Page 3] address the island’s net out-migration and employment crisis but also serve as a catalyst for building a transformative, climate-change-resilient economy.5
DISASTER ECONOMICS AND THE ROAD TO PRIVATIZATION
The humanitarian crisis expanded quickly after Hurricane María hit, affecting 3.3 million US citizens—from the island’s mountainous interior to its...