Puerto Rico Rising

A view from the Puerto Rico governor’s official summer residence, Jájome, from where Gov. Rosselló saw only riff-raff after Hurricane María.
/Puerto Rico Historical Buildings

It’s morning in Puerto Rico and the island finally is rising. It did not rise after devastating Hurricane María. It did not rise when food, water and supplies did not get through. It did not rise after more than 3,000 hurricane-related deaths. It did not rise after a nearly a year of no electric power. It did not rise after federal aid, slow to pour in, came accompanied by presidential insults.

It took a long, long while – decades – but Puerto Rico finally is standing on its feet and is roaring back at the powers that be. Not because of 900 pages of texts that disclosed the utter crassness of the Ricardo Rosselló administration whose officials and advisors even ridiculed the hurricane dead, although that certainly added to it.

Puerto Rico is rising because the blinders are off. The administration – and I would add others before it – are unmasked. La gente, la muchedumbre, los de abajo finally have acknowledged that the island’s dire situation isn’t likely to get better with the current administration but, more important, current attitudes in place. Period. Punto.

The elite who for decades has swapped governance of the island now stands naked – nekked, as they say in the South, where so many Puerto Ricans have taken up residence in an escape from Macondo.

It’s not just the vulgar and offensive texts and financial corruption or malfeasance – six FBI arrests in recent weeks – but also a corruption of attitudes and of the very soul of Puerto Rico.

The ‘Guaynabito’ Effect

The powerful administrators of Puerto Rico and their families and friends are called Guaynabitos – and, no, you don’t have to be born or live in Guaynabo, the island’s wealthiest municipality, to be a Guaynabito. For decades they have divvied up the goods in Puerto Rico.

They have solid educations – a good chunk educated stateside, adding to the the equal opportunity, non-discriminatory quotient of elite institutions, although the students are not poor. They have great jobs, because they return to Puerto Rico and, through connections or pala, are easily ensconced in high-paying jobs either in public administration or the private sector. They live in gorgeous communities whose gates protect them from the riff-raff. They enrich themselves, their families and friends by skimming a percentage of government contracts.

Overtaxed and Overburdened

Meanwhile, the middle class is overtaxed – Puerto Rico tax rates start at lower levels of personal income, which itself is the lowest of any state, about $19,000 per capita per year. They paid a value added tax of 11 percent, the highest of jurisdiction, since reduced to 7 percent. Full coffers to pay for empty promises and old debt.

For everybody else there are $26 billion of transfer payments: food stamps, Medicaid, Section 8 housing and much more. (Note: This includes Social Security and veterans benefits, which should be excluded because they are earned.)

That is why government officials were surprised to see a sea of poor people without food, water and electricity whose substandard homes were destroyed or nearly so after Hurricane María sideswiped Puerto Rico.

They Did Not Know

They did not know that Puerto Rico is poor.

Rosselló’s reaction to the destitution seen from the terrace of the governor’s official mountain residence in Cayey was, we cannot ask for statehood like this. A poverty of thought for the poverty of the people.

The Guaynabitos didn’t know Puerto Rico is poor when the island’s fiscal framework crumbled, requiring bankruptcy followed by cuts in pensions and salaries, among other things.

They didn’t know Puerto Rico is poor because the $26 billion in federal transfer payments papered over a multitude of sins, blinding elected officials to the reality of living conditions, the effects of wasteful administrations and government policies and spending, and the impact of the fiscal bankruptcy on the ground.

Rosselló and other Guaynabitos didn’t know Puerto Rico is poor because, once the spigot of federal funds was opened in the late 1960s, it washed away any meaningful connection that the people at the top had to the rest of society.

A Disconnect

No need to worry about how the other 80 percent lives because, well, there’s always food stamps. No need to modernize the electric grid because there’s always utility subsidies. No need to plug the leaks of aqueducts and sewers because there’s always … fill in the blank.

And so the central government grew ever wasteful and bloated and distanced from the people until Hurricane María huffed and puffed and blew it all down, and it collapsed on … el pueblo, of course. Not on the well-to-do who are still lapping at the trough – Puerto Rico is scheduled to receive over $40 billion in disaster-related federal funds. But la gente with the blue tarps on their roofs. Puerto Rico has become a blue-tarp society but the Guaynabitos still don’t know it.

The FBI arrests of six current and former administration officials and advisors – and hopefully more to come – coupled with the disgraceful Rosselló texts lifted the people off the ground like a Saturn rocket. And it’s lift off!

There aren’t enough federal food stamps to quell the fire and outrage of Puerto Rico rising.

María Padilla, Editor

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