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Puerto Rico’s territorial status is at the center of its challenges

Hurricane Maria exacerbated many of the difficulties that Puerto Rico was already facing, including a long-running debt crisis, unemployment and housing shortage. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano, who has been reporting on Puerto Rico, joins Hari Sreenivasan to explain why many of those issues are rooted in the island’s status as a U.S. territory and what that means for its future.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    I’m here with my colleague Ivette Feliciano who has produced most of the PBS NewsHour Weekend’s reports on Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans on the mainland. Now you’ve got family there. You’ve got a connection to the island.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Yes, Hari. I was born and raised in Chicago but my family is actually from the mountain side of Puerto Rico, the northwest side of the island. It’s a city called Lares. And every summer growing up we would go to Puerto Rico, so I definitely have a very strong connection to people there. And you know, when Hurricane Maria hit in September and millions of Puerto Ricans here on the mainland lost communication with those on the island because of the blackout, my family was in the same boat. My mom wasn’t able to reach her siblings for months. So that experience was very emotional and thankfully everybody is OK.

    But it inspired one of the first pieces that we did after the hurricane in Lehigh, Pennsylvania, it’s a historic Puerto Rican enclave. And we talked about what people were experiencing there and beyond that, just sort of understanding that complicated relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. The unincorporated nature of being a territory of the U.S. but not a part of the U.S. And what that’s meant for taxation, for political participation and for government services and federal funding and how that’s led up to the debt crisis that we have today.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In our last interview on the program, we got into detail about Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. How does that affect people there on a daily basis?

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Yeah. Well the debt crisis continues to be a huge strain on the island. We were actually there last summer about a year after Congress passed the PROMESA Law and instituted a financial oversight board that is there to basically oversee how Puerto Rico is going to dig itself out of this debt crisis. And tensions were really high when we were there. People were really frustrated that Congress has instituted this non democratically elected board that in many ways has more power than the government of Puerto Rico.

    So you know, it’s asked the Puerto Rican government to slash its budget by about a third through austerity measures like privatizing utilities, cutting pensions, and also lots of cuts to education. And we actually filed that report last summer and spoke with students at Puerto Rico’s only public university and got a reaction on some of these measures.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right let’s take a look.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    This spring, students and faculty protested a proposed $450 million budget cut to the university system over the next four years.[NG1] Architecture student Minette Bonilla was part of a delegation that met with the fiscal oversight board.

  • MINETTE BONILLA:

    We asked them point blank, ‘Do you know what the consequences will be of those cuts? Do you know what the consequences will be for students and their accessibility to education?’ ‘We haven’t done those studies.’ So they’re just cutting out of sheer numbers without knowing any implications for the people that are suffering those cuts.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    And this spring there were actually more widespread protests on the island and in the mainland over these austerity measures. This whole situation has really reignited a longstanding debate on the island over Puerto Rico’s future relationship with the U.S. The governor just made a new push for Puerto Rico to become a state in the next three years. Some people want complete political and economic independence for Puerto Rico and a lot of people are somewhere in between.

    But of course, for any change in Puerto Rico’s status, Congress would have to vote on that. And of course the president would have to approve.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You’ve also covered housing on the island. Put it in perspective for us. How much of an impact did Hurricane Maria have on housing in Puerto Rico?

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Well, housing is also a huge problem on the island. Even before Hurricane Maria, because of a 10 year economic recession in Puerto Rico, that led to job losses and foreclosures and a depopulation of Puerto Rico, a huge portion of Puerto Rico’s housing stock was vacant. And then comes Hurricane Maria.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So what are people there doing now?

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Well, a lot of people have moved to the mainland — about 135,000 since Hurricane Maria. We actually went to Hartford, Connecticut and spoke to families staying at one hotel there.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Let’s take a look at that clip.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Two days before Maria hit, Israel Rivera sold the family’s two cars and, with savings, bought five plane tickets to the mainland.

  • ISRAEL RIVERA:

    I could have stayed, I’m an adult, I don’t care. But I thought about my girls… The hurricane, the force with which it was coming, category 5, I said, this will destroy everything.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    He was right. Most of their town still has no power. Many survivors chose to come to places like Connecticut. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has placed almost 4,000 families in hotels across 41 states and Puerto Rico, 168 of them in Connecticut.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So give us an update. Are these families still living in the hotels?

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    So as of this month there are about 1,000 families still living in the hotels. The latest update is that the program, the transitional housing program, has been extended through the beginning of August.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    One of the things you notice in those shots is the kids. What happens to something as simple as school?

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Since Hurricane Maria, about 24,000 school age children have entered U.S. mainland school districts. And while we were in Connecticut, speaking to families at the hotels, we also visited a high school in Connecticut Connecticut has seen 2,000 new students in its school system.

  • GIA DE LEON:

    I miss my mom, I don’t get used to this, it’s hard, I’m distracted.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    De Leon, a junior at Bulkeley, came to Hartford last fall from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria struck the island. Her family had never considered sending her away to be educated. But when her school lost both electricity and water, and closed, her mother decided to send her to live with her aunt in Hartford to finish school.

  • GIA DE LEON:

    I’m always gonna prefer that life I used to have before the hurricane.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    I just want to say you know it I know it all sounds like doom and gloom and it’s true that there are some really serious crises facing Puerto Rico right now. But in every one of these pieces that we’ve reported, we’ve seen stories of resilience of communities coming together to help each other and of organizations on the ground trying to get the message out and do important work. So if people want more information on how to get involved, they should definitely take a look at some of these pieces on our web site.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right Ivette Feliciano. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Thank you.

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