Puerto Rico Crisis Offers Business Opportunities

Hisp CofC 2016
Puerto Rico economic opportunities were discussed at the Hispanic Business Conference & Expo this week.  / Maria Padilla

Every fiasco creates opportunity, if people care to look carefully. That was the message of a panel discussion about the Puerto Rico financial crisis held this week at the Hispanic Business Conference and Expo in Orlando.

The island’s many problems are known to Central Floridians, tens of thousands of whom have fled Puerto Rico to settle here. But the business panelists pointed out that positive things are also happening on the island.

Hisp Biz Conference
Moderator Rafael Lama (standing), Carlos López Lay, Sonia Colón and Gustavo Vélez discuss Puerto Rico economic potential during the Hispanic Business Conference. /Maria Padilla

“The other side of the situation in Puerto Rico is that not everything is going bad,” said Gustavo Vélez, president of Inteligencia Económica, an economic consulting firm based in San Juan. “Over the last 200 years, Puerto Rico has been restructuring itself – from coffee production in the 1800s to becoming a pharmaceutical hub in the region” until 1996, when federal tax credits were eliminated and eventually phased out.

Carlos López Lay, owner of a Puerto Rico auto parts business, was even cheerier, explaining he formed a movement titled “Yo no me quito,” or We Don’t Quit, to demonstrate islanders’ resilience in the face of a 10-year economic decline and the island’s inability to pay its mountain of debt.

“There are people in the community doing extraordinary things in Puerto Rico,” López said, adding “Yo no me quito, ustedes tampoco y vamos por más.”

The social media movement, with reportedly over 25,000 followers, came under criticism earlier this year as a dig at Puerto Ricans who “abandon” the island during its time of need for other parts of the U.S. It’s a big, ongoing discussion that includes hurtful and sometimes hateful epithets. (I wish I had saved some comments from a particularly vitriolic discussion. Next time, readers.)

López  said that’s not what he meant. People in the states are the patria extendida or extended country, he said.

Puerto Rico is an impoverished U.S. territory that has a century-old history of migration. For generations it has had a conflicted relationship with those who leave, mostly poor islanders. Today’s migrants are better educated but no less stigmatized. For their part, migrants demonstrate affection for the island – there are political protests and other activity on behalf of the island taking place here each week – even if they weren’t born in Puerto Rico and even when there’s little reciprocity.

The panelists are correct – there’s always opportunity in every storm. For instance, Puerto Rican businesses have been following their customers to Central Florida for years, a trend that has accelerated as the island economy has tanked.

The island newspaper El Nuevo Día, whose business editor Rafael Lama moderated the panel, published a special edition this week highlighting nine island companies that have successfully set up shop in Central Florida.

But the discussion did come off as if Puerto Rico’s business community doesn’t get how the ground game has devastated middle- and low-income households. And how Central Florida is picking up the detritus, educating and orienting newcomers about how things are done here.

“We don’t do business here like in Puerto Rico,” commented Rick Hernández of Winter Springs, a Central Floridian for 35 years. “I’ve seen eight companies that have gone back to Puerto Rico.”

A frustrated State Rep. John Cortés (D-Dist. 43) said, “I’m tired of the talk and no action. People have to get more involved.”

The panelists agreed.

“We need to integrate into the big Hispanic market in Central Florida,” said attorney Sonia Colón, whose law firm Ferraiuoli LLC has opened offices in Orlando.

Vélez, the economist, closed, “We need to have a new way of doing things” on the island.

The Hispanic Business Conference, sponsored by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Orlando, is being held at the Orange County Convention Center-North Concourse and  runs through Saturday, when the vendor exhibit area is open free to the public.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

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