SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The five-hour lines at Puerto Rico’s main airport to get off the island do not make for a good omen.
Not for the already brain-drained local economy, which has lost half a million people over the past decade. Not for Florida or Texas officials, who will have to deal with an unplanned migration of hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans, who will mostly follow their cousins and uncles to those states. Certainly not for Republicans, who may see the Puerto Ricans arriving on the mainland as unassimilated Hispanics with a host of social needs befitting people who are starting from scratch — Puerto Ricans who may, as U.S. citizens, eventually vote Democratic at the polls and swing districts, states, even the presidency.
Which is why President Trump should pay close attention to what he heard during his visit to the island Tuesday and quickly make amends. We were waiting for a Marshall Plan, something announcing the rebuilding of Puerto Rico. What we got was more congratulations for his own administration. Instead of showing compassion for the most vulnerable, he went to visit the richest areas of the island.
But amid all the wreckage and upended lives in Puerto Rico, one thing is certain: Migration, already at historic levels before Hurricane Maria because of the island’s bankruptcy and dire economic situation, is bound to sharply rise with untold consequences for the states that will take them in and the island they leave behind.
Boarding a plane out of Luis Muñoz Marin airport, a usually uneventful affair for Puerto Ricans accustomed to visiting their families on the mainland, has become, after Maria’s devastation, a life-altering event. Puerto Ricans carrying as much luggage as they can tearfully say their goodbyes to their loved ones. They are simply not coming back. And the people they are leaving behind don’t want them to return to what has devolved into a chaotic cocktail of material shortages and, perhaps worse, a dearth of hope.
At the airport, screams of joy, nostalgic tears and pent-up guilt mix when passengers clear the Transportation Security Administration line and reach the departure area. The TSA line is Puerto Rico’s new border, and thousands upon thousands of people want to cross it to escape an island paradise that vanished as soon as the hurricane hit amid bankruptcy and fuel lines reminiscent of the 1973 gas shortage — a cash-only economy, where ice is the most sought-after commodity.
This is not your father’s vacation spot. This is not postcard Puerto Rico. Images of cobblestone historic streets, idyllic beaches and salsa dancing have been replaced by knee-high putrid water, dilapidated houses throughout the island and people of all ages begging for help. La Perla, the iconic San Juan neighborhood where the “Despacito” video by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee was filmed, is barely there.
The federal government is barely there, too.
Puerto Ricans’ relationship with the U.S. is layered, nuanced and complicated — and we feel slighted when Trump and other politicians compare the situation here to the government’s response to Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida. Islanders treasure our U.S. citizenship, but we oftentimes feel it is a second-class citizenship. This plays out from the most important aspects of political life (we cannot vote for the U.S. president in the general election, though we can, and do, join the armed forces) to the most mundane (many companies charge elevated fees when sending their products). The federal government’s lackluster response — and Trump’s insulting tweets from his New Jersey golf resort implying that Puerto Ricans are lazy — have easily played into that discontent.
But we also don’t buy Trump’s simplistic explanation that, because we are an island surrounded by “big water, ocean water,” it is somehow vastly more difficult for military logistics to come into play. The U.S. has a not too distant history of going straight to the heart of Caribbean islands that are (as, obviously, all islands are) surrounded by lots of water: Cuba at least eight times, the Dominican Republic in 1965, Grenada in 1983. Or for more humanitarian reasons: Haiti in 1994 to put down a coup and in 2010 after an earthquake. In Puerto Rico, by contrast, nobody is shooting at the Army — instead, we’re begging for a huge deployment.
When Maria barreled through Puerto Rico last month, its Category 4 winds leveled the island from coast to coast and exposed vulnerabilities that were either hidden or mitigated by the remnants of what the U.S. used to point to, during the imperialistic height of the Cold War, as the showcase of the Caribbean — a so-called commonwealth were capitalism brought steady-paying jobs and the trappings of a comfortable middle class and which contrasted perfectly with Cuba’s incipient socialism under Fidel Castro.
The massive exodus of Puerto Ricans to the mainland during our economic crisis has another prospective loser: tens of thousands of municipal bondholders (not necessarily all from the rich hedge-fund club) who were lured into investing in the island’s triple-tax-exempt bonds. The plan concocted by Congress to try to make them somewhat whole again without wrecking Puerto Rico’s budget now seems to be in shambles. If bondholders before were in line to get little, now they will probably get less.
In 2016, Congress approved the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, commonly referred to — and derided in the island as — Promesa, its acronym, which means “promise” in Spanish. The law created a framework to deal with what is effectively Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy: a crushing $72 billion debt, which, if pension funds are included, reaches $120 billion.
Promesa has dozens of moving parts and competing interests, but two of the main actors — the seven-member oversight board and the New York-based federal judge in charge of the process — have said that the fiscal plan to right the island’s finances depends on a mixture of improved economy and reduced migration. The thinking is simple. If people leave, especially young professionals, there will be no healthy tax base. If there is no healthy tax base, there is no significant government revenue. If there is no significant government revenue, payment to bondholders and other creditors is far over the horizon. In fact, in its first research report after the hurricane, UBS — a Swiss bank that sold billions of dollars worth of the island’s bonds — said “migration off the island to the US mainland is likely to accelerate, thereby constraining economic growth” and therefore, “we do not expect a rebound in market valuations in the foreseeable future.”
The way to deal with this debt is to keep thousands of Puerto Ricans from fleeing the island, right now. Before the hurricane, doctors were leaving at a clip of one a day — bad news for an aging population. Before the hurricane, Puerto Rico did not have access to capital markets because of its bankruptcy. Before the hurricane, Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate was roughly twice the U.S. mainland’s average. Now, all those problems are far worse.
News coverage so far has rightly focused on what is immediately needed to save lives, but none of those things are enough to push Puerto Rico to a level of sustainability where we can once again be a showcase of the Caribbean. We need a recovery package. We need empathy from federal leaders and not reprimands that we are making a dent in the budget.
We need help.
If Trump can manage to stop congratulating himself and deliver it, then in the long run, Wall Street, the banks, thousands of bondholders and politicians in Florida and Texas — as well as the 3.4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and 5 million Puerto Ricans in the mainland — will thank him.