Crisis in the Tropics

- May• 09•16

By John Liebmann, ‘88

John Liebmann and Millie Santiago-Liebmann with her sister and friends celebrate New Year’s 2016.

John Liebmann and Millie Santiago-Liebmann with her sister and friends celebrate New Year’s 2016.

Over the New Year’s holiday, my wife, Millie Santiago-Liebmann ‘03, our son, Elvin, and I travelled to Puerto Rico to visit family and friends who are among the 3.8 million American citizens living there. Millie’s sisters and brother and their families moved to Puerto Rico after growing up in East Harlem. We had a good visit, but a humanitarian crisis makes life there difficult, and the prospects for the next generation are stark.

Puerto Rico is suffering through its worst ever financial crisis with a debt of more than $70 billion. Its challenges are unique. On the one hand, it is not a sovereign nation and therefore ineligible for emergency financing or loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). On the other hand, as a U.S. territory, it is ineligible for bankruptcy protection available to American states and cities. It depends on the U.S. Congress for relief, and pending legislation there is proceeding slowly if at all.

Of course, this impacts people living there. For example, a niece in the family is a professional chemical engineer and the president of an engineering society. She reports there is fear and anxiety among her peers as young professionals leave for the mainland and better job opportunities.

Our son has a developmental disability. He is doing well in New York and relies on support services. Such services are shrinking or not available in Puerto Rico. Today some 80 percent of the island’s children live in poverty, and the unemployment rate is double that on the mainland.

Folks like us with family and friends in Puerto Rico are sounding the alarm. We welcome partners like the Jubilee USA Network, with whom the Unitarian Universalist Association is affiliated. The network was founded as a not-for-profit organization in the late 1990’s to advocate for debt relief and financial reform in developing countries with extreme poverty, but now it is focused on this U.S. territory. Through its efforts the network has so far won more than $130 billion in debt relief to benefit the world’s poorest people.

Jubilee USA designated Wednesday, April 27, as a day of prayer with religious leaders in Puerto Rico for Congressional action on debt restructuring and bankruptcy protection. There is also an online petition and other information on the campaign for Puerto Rico on the Jubilee USA Network website

Millie and I hope you’ll visit and support it.

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