05 February 2016

The Human Cost of Puerto Rico’s Limbo

It has become a daily bet, a cruel, painful, and unfair bet. Every day Puerto Rico wakes to a sort of Russian roulette, trying to determine which child, pensioner, or ward of the state is about to be left out in the cold in what has become a constant―and potentially deadly―balancing act, as officials try to manage the commonwealth’s dwindling and unpredictable cash flow while attempting to maintain basic public services. 

Since 2016 began, this forlorn island territory has been besieged by fiscal problems.

In the second week of January, the Puerto Rican government’s gasoline suppliers threatened to suspend service due to lack of payment. Ambulances and vehicles used by social workers (fundamental in a society plagued by child abuse and gender violence) were in danger of coming to a standstill. The government managed to make partial payments, but then faced a similar prospect with special education children, who were suddenly confronted with the possibility of losing therapies. They were spared by a last-minute scramble that produced payments big enough to keep services running―but not big enough to put accounts in the black.

These budget dramas play out daily while debt-ridden Puerto Rico awaits action by the U.S. Congress. Strapped with over US$70 billion in debt, Puerto Rico is spending more on debt service than on education, health, or security. Services are being curtailed as public agencies scramble to cut costs.