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A Critical Point for Puerto Rico

Decisions are being made this week that will affect the Puerto Rican community for decades. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the island is at a critical point in its history. While Congress debates Puerto Rico’s future, a diaspora summit in Washington, D.C., hopes to rally island supporters, particularly stateside Puerto Ricans.

In Congress this week, a debate continues over Puerto Rico’s transparency issues and the need to amend the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), in order to give more authority to the Fiscal Oversight Board. On Tuesday, Congress held two hearings to discuss the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The U.S. Senate held a hearing in which the Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló asked Congress for a rebuild package of more than $94 billion and pledged to “lead the most transparent disaster reconstruction in American history.”[1]

One of the biggest concerns has been about Puerto Rico’s power grid and the need to transform the Puerto Rico Electric and Power Authority (PREPA). Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and other senators questioned Governor Rosselló’s delay in asking for mutual aid to other power authorities in the United States that would have helped the grid restoration sooner. At the same time, questions were raised about the recent bungled $300 million contract with Whitefish Energy and the need for oversight over future appropriations.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT) mentioned the need for the Government of Puerto Rico to work with the Fiscal Oversight Board and the credibility problem that exists when Governor Rosselló asks for billions of dollars for rebuilding efforts.[2] In response, Governor Rosselló said he had established a recovery and reconstruction office that would oversee state and federal funds.

Meanwhile, Congress is also considering new tax reform. If it approves the House version, then goods manufactured by U.S. companies in Puerto Rico will be topped with a 20% excise tax. Such a policy will likely devastate Puerto Rico’s fragile economy. Rodrigo Masses, president of the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association (PRMA), describes the bill as a “third hurricane” to hit the island. Leaders and groups from different sectors have lobbied Congress against the tax reform, a reform that equates Puerto Rico to foreign soil.

While the future of the island is being decided in Congress, Centro will join with Cenadores, Friends of Puerto Rico, National Conference of Puerto Rican Women, BoricuActivate, UDC-David A. Clarke School of Law-Latino Law Student Association, and the National Puerto Rican Agenda to host the Puerto Rico/Puerto Ricans Diaspora Summit—Washington D.C. on Saturday, November 18, 2017.

Summit panels discussions will include how civil society responded to Puerto Rico’s humanitarian crisis after Hurricane Maria; the rebuilding and economic development initiatives in Puerto Rico; lessons learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy; and the the legislative strategies of Puerto Ricans in Congress.

Additionally, a Diaspora Agenda will be developed at the summit with the hopes of motivating stateside Puerto Ricans to act on behalf of Puerto Rico during this critical time.

[1] Hearing on Hurricane Recovery Efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, November 14, 2017, https://www.energy.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/hearings-and-business-mee...

[2] Oversight Hearing, “The Need for Transparent Financial Accountability in Territories’ Disaster Recovery Efforts,” November 14, 2017, https://naturalresources.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=403225