In NYC, Puerto Ricans Seek Solutions to Island’s Woes

(Photo by Enrique Vázquez, Creative Commons license)

(Photo by Enrique Vázquez, Creative Commons license)

Customers usually flock to East Harlem venue Camaradas El Barrio to dance to live Latin music and eat such Puerto Rican fried delicacies as alcapurrias or mofongo. But the festive First Avenue bar, a hangout for local artists and political activists, has not been immune to the somber news, anxiety and displacement brought about by Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.

“It is an unavoidable topic. Whenever you have a forced migration of this size, people are bound to talk about it,” said Orlando Plaza, owner of Camaradas. “Many recent arrivals have complained to me that they have left aging parents behind on the island who live in fear of losing their pensions and other benefits they depend on for their daily survival.”

This is a recurring scene throughout the city: As Washington and San Juan search for ways to restructure the island’s $72 billion debt and avoid default, the large Puerto Rican community in New York immerses itself in long discussions, be it in bars, homes or colleges, on how to take action.

This Friday and Saturday, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College will host a massive “Diaspora Summit” with dozens of panels featuring more than 80 speakers from Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland, including the three members of Congress of Puerto Rican heritage: José E. Serrano and Nydia M. Velázquez, who represent New York, and Luis V. Gutiérrez from Illinois.

The diaspora itself has been growing. According to Pew Research Center, Puerto Rico’s population declined by 7 percent from 2010 to 2015, and is experiencing the largest outmigration in more than 50 years. In fact, there is a hugely popular campaign in Puerto Rico that is encouraging residents not to quit: #yonomequito, which can be interpreted as both Don’t Leave and Don’t Give Up (on the island).

The Diaspora Summit follows numerous similar meetings, forums, and conferences tackling the question of how best to support the beleaguered Caribbean island, but organizers of this weekend’s meeting promise they will offer attendees more. “It’s huge. It’s a really ambitious event,” said artist Miguel Luciano, who will host a panel on visual artists and art institutions on Saturday.

“I have been to other panels, and people are really invested in trying to figure out what to do,” Luciano said. “It’s complicated; it’s not like Vieques [the small island eight miles east of Puerto Rico from which the U.S. Navy was ousted in 2003 following broad protests], in the sense that there isn’t only one solution. But people are uniting across political lines.”

For their part, academics with an interest in the island’s fate believe they bring a much-needed perspective to the issue. “Part of what the New York Puerto Rican community is doing is addressing the debt problem in the city’s academic centers and (the) media from a more complex point of view than what appears to be discussed in Washington and most of the press,” said Frances Negrón-Muntaner, director of Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. The Center hosted a panel in October that was attended, she said, by almost all the Puerto Ricans in Columbia’s faculty and administration. “I had never seen an event bring us together like this, not even the Vieques movement.”

At the panel, economist and Nobel Prize winner Joseph E. Stiglitz blamed Puerto Rico’s lack of basic self-determination for its fiscal problems, arguing that as an independent country, Puerto Rico could go to the IMF for help, and as a U.S. state it would be able to file for bankruptcy.

One of the demands unifying many Puerto Ricans, both on the island and abroad, is precisely that Congress should allow the U.S. territory to declare bankruptcy and restructure its debt, something it explicitly forbade in 1984. Playwright and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway hit “Hamilton,” recently joined the chorus in a New York Times op-ed in which he urged the Nuyorican community to support the cause: “Because Puerto Ricans can vote neither for the president nor for congressional representatives, it falls to us of Puerto Rican heritage in the continental United States to amplify their plea,” he wrote.

However, the reaction of the community as a whole seems so far muffled by the island’s own complicated and entrenched political factions. Much of the response of New York’s Boricua community to the crisis has come from nationalist and leftist groups who have previously mobilized for issues such as demanding the release of political prisoner Oscar López-Rivera.

Those groups typically support independence for Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory since 1898 whose commonwealth status ‒ translated in Spanish as “free associated state” ‒ is widely seen as a form of colonialism. However, pro-independence groups are a minority on the island, where most political discussions revolve around whether to keep the current status or move toward statehood.

Among those seeking to expand the conversation beyond the old bipartisan divide is New York-based journalist Ed Morales, who has written extensively about the debt crisis and hosted a panel about it last year at the Loisaida Center. Morales thinks that allowing Puerto Rico to declare bankruptcy is hardly a solution to the island’s woes.

“Even if that is accomplished, there is more to talk about, and I think this should be more in the forefront. For instance, what happens with the brief period of liquidity Puerto Rico would enjoy if we restructured its debt? Would the economic relationship with the U.S. change? Would Puerto Rico be free to negotiate its own treaties or economic arrangements with other countries?” said Morales, referring to the limitations set by the Jones Act of 1917, which conferred U.S. citizenship on Puerto Ricans and imposed a raft of restrictions on the island.

Partly seeking to address those issues, Ismael Betancourt Jr., president of the nonprofit Institute for Multicultural Communications, Cooperation and Development, organized a two-day conference at John Jay College last week entitled “Puerto Rico, the Debt Crisis and Self-Determination: Exploring Paths to Decolonization.”

He said that the idea for the panel came from a lifetime of activism, in which he has seen how divisive political agendas prevent the community from organizing. “If we can agree that we want decolonization, we can resolve that problem and then move on to other issues.”

The conference, which drew a large audience, included a panel entitled “The Role of the Diaspora and Paths to Decolonization.” In it, Lehman College Distinguished Lecturer Andrés Torres named previous instances in which diasporic solidarity movements on the mainland helped solve a crisis taking place in Puerto Rico, and he believes that a “new wave of first-generation migrants” will help push the diaspora to play a significant role in the current crisis.

However, he pointed out that previous successful solidarity campaigns were supported by broad sectors both on the island and abroad, and that such consensus has yet to be reached this time around. “The diaspora is waiting to see what ‘la Isla’ wants,” he said during the conference. “We are bewildered and depressed about the lack of unity on the island. You have to set an example for us.”

Betancourt Jr. stepped up to the microphone. “We don’t need to wait for leaders in Puerto Rico,” he said. “[Leadership] should come from us.”

Just what that leadership should do has yet to be decided. On the two days of the Diaspora Summit starting Friday, dozens of stakeholders in Puerto Rico’s future, from artists to academics to veterans to representatives of faith communities, will meet in sessions that pose the question: “What can we do?”

For the island’s residents, good answers to that question can come none too soon.

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