Last Week Tonight: A poignantly daring late-night news show hosted on HBO by John Oliver. The show’s success is in large part a reflection of Oliver’s ability to brilliantly marry award-winning reporting and in-depth research with his unique British satirical sense of humor. Still, the reason that millions of viewers keep coming back each season is that Oliver acts as a proxy for his viewers, unflinchingly expressing the justified righteous rage that many of us feel on a range of social and political issues.
Last week I got on YouTube and realized that the newest episode, Puerto Rico, was out. Never mind that I’d be late to class, I clicked on it immediately.
As a Puerto Rican, I was thrilled that the economic crisis was finally being covered on a much-deserved international platform.
Even though the segment was characteristically funny and well-researched, by the end of it I was left with nothing more than a jumbled list of economic and political reasons as to why Puerto Rico is in the hole.
I was unmoved, unsure why I should care about this issue.
Oliver’s power to mobilize and galvanize people to a cause is perhaps his most powerful tool. But where was it this time? More than simple recognition of the problem, I hoped that the segment would finally knock some sense into the millions of Americans who have no idea why they should care about Puerto Rico. For once Oliver failed.
Now it’s my turn.
Too many people are probably wondering, “How this crisis is more relevant to us as Americans than the Greek financial crisis? After all, we don’t live on the island. We don’t pay $7 for a gallon of milk, or a 13% sales tax. And we certainly weren’t responsible the $70 billion debt that the Puerto Rican government recklessly racked up.”
So, why should you care?
Why? Because most Puerto Ricans aren’t responsible for the debt either. And now they’re paying the price for it. Let’s break it down:
1) First, Puerto Ricans are Americans.
We are born with US social security numbers, US citizenship and we hold US passports (there is no such thing as a Puerto Rican passport). We are full American citizens in every sense.
2) Fifteen years ago there were close to four million of us living on the island. Today that number has plummeted to 3.5 million. That means that the island has experienced a 7% decline in population.
“But 7 percent??” you might say. “That means that 93% of people are still there. How is that even a big deal?”
Let’s put that into perspective.
If 7% of the US population fled the country, we would lose the entire population of the State of Texas — the second most populated state in the US. The implications of that are huge! Economically that would be like losing almost 10% of the country’s entire economic production and income. And when people have less income, they spend less. When they spend less, companies produce less. And this leads to even more people losing their jobs. For many in Puerto Rico, the only option is to head to the mainland to find work.
Last year alone over 80,000 people left the island.
The bigger picture? Many of these people are doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers and other highly educated people on whom the economic recovery will one day depend.
3) How the island fell into this toxic cycle of unlimited borrowing is largely connected to the job market, but it is too intricate to explain in a few words. So let’s focus on the consequences of this economic catastrophe.
Due to some unjustifiable laws and obscure amendments likely introduced by Senator Strom Thurmond in the 80’s, Puerto Rico cannot file for bankruptcy like any of the fifty states. This means that the 330,000 people who paid into their retirement funds for their entire working lives aren’t receiving their retirement pensions because the government has wiped them clean and can’t replace them. And even if they wanted to come out of retirement, the chances of finding a job in the overheated labor market would be nearly impossible. This means that food stamps, housing assistance and unemployment benefits will be slashed and the disenfranchised will continue to suffer. This means that the electric grid on the island will continue to suffer major cuts, prohibiting hospitals from operating, schools from opening, and people from getting basic services.
This was an economic crisis. Now we are on the verge of a humanitarian crisis.
The point I’m hope to make is simple.
The Puerto Rican people are not Greece halfway around the world.
This problem is your problem: now, or later.
Because we, as Puerto Ricans, are Americans.
We are Americans facing the very real possibility of becoming a lost generation. For millions of people, the inability to pay for higher education or find jobs is a daunting reality. For millions of people who have relied on government help, the massive social safety networks have expired.
You must care about Puerto Ricans because we are not just some islanders who live in your favorite vacation spot. We are the beautiful and intelligent Miss Universes, unrivaled in titles. We are the Major League Baseball players that your kids look up to and aspire to be. We are the Supreme Court justices that proudly guard and preserve the U.S. Constitution. We are the entertainers you pay to see on Broadway, whose CDs you buy and whose movies you watch. We are the people of all genders, colors, sexualities and religions who don the uniform and travel to places beyond our homeland to protect the democracy that we all enjoy.
All figures and talking points aside, we are American.
We are Americans who have lost, and will continue to lose, homes, health care and access to education. If nothing is done, and prices keep increasing, many of us may even lose access to proper nutrition.
Puerto Rico’s previous governors and their grossly negligent administrations let their greed and power affect the fates of millions while they comfortably spent their millions. Now those people are penniless and being taxed at higher rates than any other place in the United States, even as they make less.
All of this in an attempt to pay off an exorbitant debt that can’t be paid.
This is not the Puerto Rican people’s fault. They have been exploited and now it is the moral and legal obligation of the federal government to protect the citizens living under its constitution.
This is not a partisan issue. This is not Obama. This is not Fortuño. This is not Ryan.
Esto se trata de la sobrevivencia del pueblo Puertoriqueño.
You can watch the video here