Why aren’t we paying attention to Puerto Rico?
On May 1, police fired tear gas and pepper spray at thousands of U.S. citizens, including both students and teachers, who were protesting the sorry state of public education in their communities. But the demonstrations received little news coverage. This was sadly predictable. That is because the protests did not happen in Oklahoma or West Virginia but in Puerto Rico—still reeling from Hurricane Maria, which wiped out the island’s power infrastructure last summer and caused hundreds and perhaps thousands of deaths. (The number of casualties will probably never be known.)
Puerto Rico and its 3.4 million residents are now facing “austerity” measures imposed by an unelected oversight board created by Congress, as if cutting government services were the highest priority in one of the poorest places in the United States. No state with full representation in the U.S. Senate and House would be ignored in this way.
The Atlantic reports that the oversight board’s plan, approved in April, will slash benefits for public employees (including sick leave and vacation pay), reduce public pensions, impose work requirements for food assistance to families in poverty and cut funding for the University of Puerto Rico and for municipal governments. Because of the austerity measures, the university plans a tuition hike that will more than double the cost per academic credit, and Puerto Rico’s Department of Education plans to close 280 of about 1,100 public schools on the island this summer.
The demonstrations received little news coverage. That is because the protests did not happen in Oklahoma or West Virginia but in Puerto Rico.
Some belt-tightening in Puerto Rico is necessary. The island is roughly $72 billion in debt, thanks to an economic recession that has lasted more than a decade. Puerto Rico is also experiencing an exodus of residents to the U.S. mainland—not surprisingly, given the painfully slow recovery from Hurricane Maria, including yet another widespread power outage in April—that will necessitate at least some of the school closings.
[Explore America's in-depth coverage of Hurricane Maria.]
But May Day protesters told reporters that they fear a death spiral because of the budget-cutting measures as middle-class families abandon the island in response to the cutbacks in government services. This is an outcome that would not be tolerated elsewhere in the United States. The cities of New Orleans and, more recently, Houston were not given up as lost after natural disasters; the city of Detroit received federal help after declaring bankruptcy in 2013. Puerto Rico, larger than any of those cities, is also just as much part of the family of the United States, even if it still has not yet been given a voice in Washington. The members of Congress with many constituents of Puerto Rican descent should take a leading role in ensuring that the oversight board take a long-range view toward bringing social and economic stability to the island. And the people of Puerto Rico should not feel they must take to the streets to get the attention of their compatriots.