In 2015, the worrisome economic situation in Puerto Rico turned into a full-blown crisis that persists today. The 3.5 million U.S. citizens on the island are bearing the brunt of austerity measures, their future compromised by the government’s $73 billion debt. But unlike U.S. states or countries, Puerto Rico can’t benefit from bankruptcy laws or ask international institutions for aid.
NCLR recognizes the potential consequences of the crisis and has met with groups on Capitol Hill to advocate for quick and comprehensive action to help our fellow Americans. And we have worked with Affiliates to help communities provide services to those Puerto Ricans who are arriving to the mainland in record numbers as they search for better economic opportunities.
U.S. Representative Nydia Velázquez of New York has been a valued and effective leader throughout this process. At this year’s 29th Annual NCLR Capital Awards, we honor Rep. Velázquez for her commitment to solving Puerto Rico’s current debt crisis. She has used her role in Congress to be a strong and vocal advocate with lawmakers, and has helped more Americans be aware of and understand this problem. Below, Velázquez shares some insight on where things stand on this issue.
NCLR: You have led the call for Congress to address Puerto Rico’s economic and humanitarian crisis. What are your impressions of where we are in this debate?
When Congress left at the end of last year, Speaker [Paul] Ryan made a pledge of moving a bill by the end of March. We’ve now had multiple hearings in the Financial Services and Natural Resources Committees and the legislative process is getting underway and we are approaching a critical juncture. We’ll need to continue speaking with one voice as this continues unfolding.
NCLR: What do you say to those who claim that Puerto Rico does not need debt restructuring, but strong financial oversight?
Puerto Rico has already endured enormous cuts that are undermining the very pillars of civil society. The Puerto Rican people are making significant sacrifices in the areas of public safety, education, and health care. So, for those who argue further oversight is the answer, I would ask how many more cuts the Puerto Rican people must endure. If we fail to address the financial issues facing Puerto Rico—through meaningful debt restructuring—we can expect a humanitarian crisis on our doorstep.
We should remember the Commonwealth used to have authority to restructure its debt like any other state or municipality until Congress took that right away in 1984. It is time to restore and build on that right and give the people of Puerto Rico what they need to address all their debts.
NCLR: Are you hopeful that there will be a solution this year?
Yes. We must remain united and continue calling for action, but I believe we are building momentum.
NCLR: You’re the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. What can be done to have more women and people of color reach the highest offices of the land?
We must continue paving the way for women to be involved in the civic process at all levels of government. March marks Women’s History Month and it constitutes a good time to reflect on the amount of progress we’ve made in this area—and on how much further we have to go. I continue encouraging young women and young people of color to enter politics and be active in their local communities, so that our leadership is more reflective of our nation’s diversity.