Fragility and Rule of Law in Puerto Rico
Compared to other countries in North and Central America, Puerto Rico is unique in terms of its fragility and rule of law. Puerto Rico is considered a U.S. territory and is subject to U.S. laws, but also has its own government and constitution, which passed through Congress in 1952. Joe Biden stands as the president of Puerto Rico, but a governor elected by Puerto Ricans also rules over the territory. Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizen status, but cannot vote in presidential elections and have no representatives in Congress. These contradictions mean that Puerto Rico is neither a state nor a sovereign country. Understanding fragility and the rule of law in Puerto Rico provides insight into the importance of aid to the nation in times of crisis.

The Statehood Debate

Because it is a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is included in the U.S. Census data. According to the most recent data from July 2021, the poverty rate in Puerto Rico stood at 40.5% and the median household income between 2016-2020 stood at a little over $21,000.

Mississippi, the poorest state in the U.S., had a median household income of $45,792 in 2021, an amount $20,000 less than the national average, and a poverty rate of 19.6%. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, yet its poverty rate is more than twice as high as the poorest state in the U.S.

The past few decades have seen debates about statehood and Puerto Rico’s admission into the Union as a state. Puerto Rico has held six referendums over the years regarding statehood, the most recent one occurring in 2020. The majority of citizens voted for statehood but Congress ultimately has the final say in determining statehood. Even if statehood is something that Puerto Rico wants, that decision is entirely out of its hands. This important fact and poverty statistics partly explain the fragility and rule of law in Puerto Rico.

The Economic Factors

The debate over statehood ties into some of Puerto Rico’s economic woes as well. Because of its status, Puerto Rico uses the U.S. dollar as its currency and U.S. laws and policies oversee its businesses and trade policy. Puerto Ricans enjoy tax exemptions, but they receive far fewer social welfare benefits than people living in the U.S. even though the U.S. government considers them U.S. citizens. Puerto Ricans challenged some of these lack of benefits in court, such as Supplemental Security Income, but, ultimately, the cases saw no success.

The country is also in the middle of an economic recession due to massive debt. According to an article from Vox on Puerto Rico’s situation, the debt crisis began in 2014 when Puerto Rico had accumulated $72 billion worth of bond debt. Data from the Council on Foreign Relations shows that the debt in 2020 stood at about $70 billion, which is about 68% of Puerto Rico’s GDP. Puerto Rico turned its budget over to an independent board in Washington in order to help control its debt.

Hurricane Recovery

Hurricanes and their lingering effects on people and the economy exacerbate the fragility of Puerto Rico. Hurricane Fiona is fresh on everyone’s minds but Hurricane Maria (2017) had a more significant impact on the country.

An Amnesty International article from 2018 reveals personal accounts and statistics on the state of Puerto Rico one year after Maria. According to the article, “tens of thousands in Puerto Rico are still living under blue tarps, designed as temporary roofs.” Additionally, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) rejected about 62% of applications for home reconstruction aid at that time. Hurricane Maria also knocked out nearly 80% of the island’s energy grid and power had not been restored to the last house until a year later. Then, Hurricane Fiona hit in September 2022, dismantling much of the recovery process.

Many places on the island experienced flooding with some areas receiving as much as 30 inches of rain. In Puerto Rico, “overflowing waterways and the loss of power caused pumps to fail, leaving 70% of households and businesses that rely on the public water and sewer system without potable water,” The India Express says.

By September 2022, LUMA, the main power utility in Puerto Rico, restored power to more than 100,000 people out of the 1.5 million LUMA customers without power.

In addition, many facilities learned from the events of Hurricane Maria and employed generators — hospitals ran on backup generators during the storm. This is in stark contrast to the time of Hurricane Maria when many hospitals lost power during the storm and could not operate.

The United States Response

The White House is committed to helping Puerto Rico recover. During his speech in Puerto Rico on October 3, 2022, Biden promised that Puerto Rico will receive every dollar Congress approved in federal aid after Maria hit. In terms of aid, at the time of the speech, the U.S. sent $4 million to improve the resilience of Puerto Rico’s electricity grid.

During the first month of response since Biden declared the situation in Puerto Rico a disaster on September 21, 2022, FEMA provided more than $456 million in disaster relief to more than 600,000 families. In addition, Biden authorized FEMA to provide its services (Individual Assistance, Public Assistance and Hazard Mitigation) to all municipalities in Puerto Rico. The agency had also hired Puerto Ricans as temporary employees to assist with recovery efforts in order to reduce unemployment.

By improving issues regarding fragility and the rule of law in Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico can achieve stability in several critical areas.

– Matthew Wikfors
Photo: Flickr

FEMA assistance for Puerto Rico
On Oct. 20, 2022, President Joe Biden increased FEMA assistance for Puerto Rico to accelerate recovery efforts after Hurricane Fiona. This amendment builds upon Biden’s major disaster declaration on Sep. 21, 2022, which authorized the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to lead recovery efforts in Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities. While the original declaration on Sep. 21 set the federal funding for emergency protective services at 75%, President Biden increased the share to 100%. The 100% share, which previously covered emergency costs for the first 30 days after Hurricane Fiona, will be extended to 60 days under the Oct. 20 amendment. These funds will go toward “debris removal and emergency protective measures” as well as “direct federal assistance” to aid in recovery efforts, according to The White House.

Ongoing Recovery Efforts After Hurricane Fiona

From Sep. 17 to Sep. 21, Hurricane Fiona destroyed homes and businesses across Puerto Rico, resulting in multiple fatalities. Puerto Rico’s Department of Health notes more than a dozen confirmed deaths related to Hurricane Fiona, from causes such as head trauma and drowning. When Hurricane Fiona reached Puerto Rico, many residents were still trying to recover from Hurricane Maria, which caused severe damage to the island just five years earlier.

Although the storm came to an end, more than 100,000 residents struggled without power even two weeks after the storm hit. LUMA Energy, the company in charge of Puerto Rico’s grid, restored power to 91% of its customers but faced difficulty reaching more remote areas. NPR reported that “nearly a third of customers in the western region of the island” had no electricity access as of Oct. 2.

The storm also destroyed bridges and vital transportation roads, preventing many emergency services from reaching more isolated regions. While government officials and local groups have successfully reached many of these areas, transportation concerns remain for the elderly, people with disabilities and people with preexisting health conditions.

FEMA’s Emergency Protective Services

FEMA has been working closely with the government of Puerto Rico to boost recovery efforts. In a Sep. 25 FEMA press release, Puerto Rico’s Governor Pedro Pierluisi stated: “We are committed to ensuring our people have access to essential services. We will continue working collaboratively with all our mayors so that full disaster assistance reaches the 78 municipalities.”

According to a FEMA report on Oct. 11, FEMA teams have registered more than 3,700 residents for FEMA’s Disaster Survivor Assistance (DSA). DSA crews have “referred more than 2,600 individuals to voluntary agencies” to assist with medical care and transport, evacuation and shelter, home restoration and other relief services.

Because FEMA requests that survivors communicate their needs primarily through email, phone or the mobile app, FEMA aimed to provide internet connection and power in more isolated regions. For example, FEMA installed mobile satellite systems in mountainous regions to establish Wi-Fi hotspots. Once connected with FEMA, survivors can register for “federal disaster assistance.” After survivors apply for assistance, FEMA inspectors schedule an appointment to assess the damage.

Learning From the Past

FEMA’s efforts have already made a considerable impact on survivors of Hurricane Fiona. However, Puerto Rico has experienced difficulties initiating recovery projects through Public Assistance funds provided by FEMA. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that, in January 2021, FEMA pledged $23.8 billion through Public Assistance funds to help Puerto Rico recover from the effects of previous hurricanes and earthquakes as well as the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the GAO reports that “because Public Assistance is a reimbursement program, Puerto Rico must provide the initial funding for projects and seek reimbursement afterward.” However, Puerto Rico’s financial difficulties posed barriers to accessing funding to begin the obligated recovery projects. As such, by May 2021, Puerto Rico had only spent $4.7 billion of the $23.8 billion. Additionally, Puerto Rico “only spent $158 million for long-term rebuilding projects, such as rebuilding schools, the power grid, water systems and other damaged infrastructure,” the GAO said.

The GAO recommends that FEMA identifies potential barriers to Puerto Rico’s recovery and takes action to address these risks as recovery efforts in Puerto Rico continue. With this feedback, FEMA can strengthen the recovery response in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona. With Biden’s new funding plan, FEMA will be able to expand its territorial and local efforts on a larger scale.

– Anna Lee
Photo: Flickr

Charities in Puerto RicoPuerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean that is classified as an unincorporated United States territory. The country has a beautiful landscape consisting of tropical beaches and scenic mountains, which attracts visitors year-round. Puerto Rico’s geographic location is within the hurricane belt, which makes the island especially vulnerable to sea level rise and severe storms. For decades, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has struggled to recover from a legacy of colonialism and a massive accumulation of debt. Other factors that have negatively affected Puerto Rico’s economic prosperity include the COVID-19 pandemic, the damaging effects of multiple severe storms and a declining population. In 2021, over 40% of Puerto Rico’s population lived in poverty.

Below are five charities operating in Puerto Rico that aim to address the needs of people in Puerto Rico.

Hispanic Federation

The Hispanic Federation is a nonprofit organization that is committed to helping Hispanic families and empowering Hispanic communities. Over 98% of Puerto Rico’s residents identify as Hispanic or Latino.

The Hispanic Federation focuses on uplifting Hispanic and Latino communities by working within the areas of education, health, civic engagement, government advocacy, economic empowerment and the environment.

The charity is a coalition of local organizations that help people through processes consisting of “public education, advocacy, and voter mobilization”. The Hispanic Federation works to advance the interests of Hispanic communities and help alleviate their problems by providing long-term solutions. The organization is actively involved in Puerto Rico and has invested $43 million into addressing the needs of its residents.

The Hispanic Federation is also heavily involved in long-term recovery efforts for Puerto Rico’s communities that have been impacted by severe hurricanes such as Hurricane Maria.

Foundation for Puerto Rico

This charity is a nonprofit focused on economic development in Puerto Rico. The Foundation for Puerto Rico aims to improve local economies on the island in an effort to uplift people through direct investment. The charity is committed to initiatives that make transformational impacts on Puerto Rico’s economy in order to provide long-term social and economic empowerment. For example, its initiative titled the “whole community resilience planning program” works with the Puerto Rico Department of Housing to strategically develop and improve communities on the island that are at risk of climate and environmental disasters.

The organization emphasizes local community participation and inclusivity in order to address the needs of people in Puerto Rico in an effective manner.

Taller Salud

This nonprofit organization is a feminist community-based group that is dedicated to improving women’s health in Puerto Rico. Taller Salud operates under the idea that women are at the center of rebuilding efforts within communities in Puerto Rico. The organization works to improve women’s access to health care, as well as uplift communities through activism and empowerment. The charity was also actively involved in providing food and supplies to people in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Fiona’s devastation.

Taller Salud is guided by a method of gender perspective that prioritizes the needs of people in Puerto Rico while taking into account the role that gender dynamics and cultural relationships play in community improvement. The organization works to promote gender equality and social justice while improving women’s health needs within Puerto Rico.

The charity works to achieve its goals through community awareness campaigns, community outreach initiatives and advocacy efforts.

La Maraña

This nonprofit organization promotes the inclusion of Puerto Rican voices when building cities and communities on the island. This charity is led by women and focuses on design and community-based planning. La Maraña collaboratively designs homes and communities that prioritize the needs of local residents. The charity raises money to construct and complete these projects, building new homes for people who lost their previous homes to hurricanes and severe storms. La Maraña emphasizes community-led recovery efforts, as well as advocacy efforts across Puerto Rico.

Asesores Financieros Comunitarios (Community Financial Advisors)

Based in San Juan, Asesores Financieros Comunitarios (Community Financial Advisors) provides technical training and assistance to community-based nonprofit organizations in Puerto Rico.

The charity works to help other charities operate and succeed by providing assistance with accounting and administration. Trained accountants, volunteers and university students in this charity work to provide other nonprofit organizations with technical help and promote economic sustainability. Financial advisors who work for this charity are aiming to expand Puerto Rico’s capacity for nonprofit organizations so that struggling people in Puerto Rico can receive the most help. Through training programs and workshops, they work to promote the well-being of impoverished people that need humanitarian assistance from charities operating in Puerto Rico.

These five charities operating in Puerto Rico aim to benefit people who desperately need help.

Dylan Priday
Photo: Unsplash

Puerto Rico In RuinsOn Sept. 18, 2022, Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico. This Category 1 storm left hundreds of people stranded all across the island. Houses and buildings were obliterated and left on the streets. Current residents are reeling and coping with how their homes no longer exist.

Puerto Rico’s History of Hurricanes

Five years before Hurricane Fiona, Puerto Rico was visited by another tropical storm: Hurricane Maria. Maria was a Category 4 hurricane that left aftershocks still impacting the island. Not only did it leave Puerto Rico in physical ruins, but it also collapsed the country’s electrical system. Although the Trump administration attempted to help with damage and repairs, United States aid efforts were inadequate, given the magnitude of the storm and the amount of relief provided. When Hurricane Fiona hit a few years later, the island had not recovered.

Hurricane Fiona Strikes

Severe flooding occurred as dark clouds rested above the entire island and delivered record amounts of rainfall in Puerto Rico. Still traumatized from Hurricane Maria, Danny Hernández, a citizen of San Juan, recalled the scarcity’ most Puerto Rican residents have experienced since the first catastrophe years ago. Hurricane Fiona left 900,000 residents without power and 358,000 without access to water. Due to high winds, debris blocked many peoples’ escape routes to safety. In Cayey, a mountainside town, the Puerto Rican National Guard was sent to rescue 21 elderly and disabled people from an elderly home. Photography student, Ada Vivian Román, experienced several trees and fences being knocked over around her town. However, she goes on to say how privileged she feels compared to those whose homes were submerged underwater by the storm, AP News reports.

Hurricane Relief Efforts in Puerto Rico

After seeing Puerto Rico in ruins, U.S. President, Joe Biden, took action in assisting the struggling island. Biden has promised to allocate federal funds to pay for 100% of aid costs related to Fiona for one month. Before the hurricane, he approved a declaration allowing FEMA to give money directly to the people impacted by the storm. Moreover, on Sept. 21, Biden issued a major disaster declaration for Puerto Rico.

Several organizations have begun to raise funds to support this catastrophe. For instance, Global Giving has started a Hurricane Fiona Relief Fund to help residents on the island and others bordering Caribbean islands affected by this storm. In addition, a women-led nonprofit, Taller Salud, is already working to provide hurricane relief across Puerto Rico by accepting donations of everyday items.

With Puerto Rico devastated by the hurricane, many residents are left wondering what the future holds and how the hurricane’s impact will likely be felt for years. With continued support from international and local aid, Puerto Ricans strive to overcome this disaster.

– Madison Stivala
Photo: Flickr

Diseases in Puerto Rico
Chronic diseases in Puerto Rico have been on the rise in recent years. According to the Puerto Rico Report, more than half of the deaths reported on the island are due to chronic diseases. In 2010, 57% of deaths were due to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and strokes. The Puerto Rican Report also said more than one-third of Puerto Ricans have diabetes, more than 18% have arthritis and 17% have reported asthma throughout their adulthood.

Poverty and Chronic Diseases

Puerto Rico Report stated in an article that poverty has a connection with the increase of chronic diseases as households with an income of around $15,000 per year or less have higher chances of developing a chronic disease. Chronic diseases result in disabilities that can deteriorate the workforce and exacerbate the health care system. The CDC stated that 21% of Puerto Ricans have reported having serious mobility restrictions.

A study that the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published stated that, compared to the general mainland population in the United States, chronic disease occurrence levels and mortality rates are higher for the people living in Puerto Rico. Around 44.3% of individuals who reported food insecurity in the study also reported that they perceived their health to be average or poor. The study also found that as of 2020, 5,000 doctors had left the island to work in the United States for economic reasons leaving the island, marking a 36% decline in medical staff on the island. Health care services in Puerto Rico currently face the risk of funding reduction in the Medicaid program that could lead to 1.5 million people losing health care coverage.

Financial Burdens

The Puerto Rico Report stated that citizens of the island are currently not eligible for Supplemental Security Income due to its status as a colony. The rising cost of pharmaceutical medicines and treatments has left the high levels of chronic disease to increase the financial burdens on the island. More than half of Puerto Rican residents are eligible for Medicaid. However, they do not receive enough funding to cover the cost of their disease’s treatment.

Solutions

In 2014, the Puerto Rican government released the “Puerto Rico Chronic Disease Action Plan” that focuses on collecting data, chronic disease self-management education, intervention plans within communities and increasing access to nutritious food and physical activity. The plan could strengthen the health care system on the island while increasing the economic position of Puerto Rico as the government looks to build medical manufacturing on the island to increase profit and medications. The plan is also looking to increase a clinical trial network within the island and develop local primary health.

The Puerto Rican government developed the model from the chronic model that the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) created and implemented in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and the Dominican Republic. This model has reduced hospitalization rates due to diabetes, hypertension and other chronic conditions. It has also decreased the economic strain of the health care system in the different countries. “The model has six components: organization of care, community engagement, support for self-management, clinical information systems, design of service delivery systems, and support for clinical decisions,” PAHO stated.

The government has yet to release any update on the progress of the model due to the pandemic drawing attention away from the increasing risk of chronic diseases on the island. Chronic illnesses still present a big risk factor on the island from both the economic and health care perspective. However, many of the education sections of the model have increased health awareness on the island. As the island begins to move away from the COVID-19 pandemic hope increases for an increase in resources for chronic illness treatment.

– Nuria Diaz
Photo: Flickr

Power Crisis in Puerto Rico 
Puerto Rico is facing a power crisis as regular power outages put a pause on the island’s regular schedule, forcing many Puerto Ricans to throw away their groceries and stay at home in shelter from the unwavering heat. Hurricane Maria heavily damaged the electric grid system in 2017, leaving the public power company with $9 billion in debt. According to AP News, power authority workers stated that they patched up the electric grid with whatever material they could during the hurricane as they did not have enough funds or materials to completely repair the electrical grid. The Puerto Rican government announced the privatization of the power company in June 2020, selecting Luma Energy to care for the electric grid for the next 15 years.

Blackouts in Puerto Rico

Puerto Ricans claim the new power company has failed to meet the standards it promised the citizens. Puerto Ricans claim constant power outages plague their daily routine as several explosions in the electric grid have caused major blackouts in recent months. The Center for New Economy, a Puerto Rican-based thinktank, has said that the blackouts will continue as a regular occurrence until the electric grid receives full repairs which could potentially cost $10 billion for the local government. The CNE also stated that most of the irregularities within the electric crisis in Puerto Rico have been due to miscommunication between the government and Luma Energy.

A recent outage on the island that lasted five days led to more than a million citizens being left without electricity on the island. Around 160,000 did not have water due to buildings needing the power to push the cistern to the upper floors. Hospitals around the island ended up without power leaving many patients who rely on electricity waiting.

The power crisis in Puerto Rico has been an ongoing constant on the island since Hurricane Maria, no viable solution has yet emerged for the island to recuperate its electric grid system. Puerto Ricans have become used to living in the dark as of 2022.

Green Initiative

The Casa Pueblo Foundation is a community-based organization that focuses on developing sustainable management for communities in Puerto Rico by beginning to build a solar power grid system to bring sustainable energy to the pueblo of Adjuntas. Approximately 1,000 solar panels underwent installation in December 2020 in 18 businesses and buildings around the town. The panels include a 220 kW capacity and a 1 MW storage capacity. The Honnold Foundation is an organization that promotes solar energy for a more equitable world. This Foundation and the Community Solar Energy Association of Adjuntas supported the project to help finance the installation for low-income community members as the organization projected a 30% decrease in the communities power bill for the incoming year.

Maximo Solar, a Puerto Rican-based company that looked to staff the installation process with members of the Adjuntas community, produced the solar grids. The initial profits of the project will go toward the operation of the microgrid, repairs and maintenance while the remaining profits will go back into the community.

– Nuria Diaz
Photo: Picryl

Housing Crisis in Puerto Rico 
The housing crisis in Puerto Rico worsens with the increase of natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes that have destroyed housing around the island. According to the United States Interagency Council on homelessness, 2,451 Puerto Ricans have faced homelessness on the island since January 2021. The U.S. Department of Education reported that around 4,717 students met chronic homelessness in the 2018-19 academic year, with 439 students completely unsheltered. The Puerto Rican housing market has faced a prolonged crisis since the 2006 economic crisis that depreciated values within the market; the island lost around 45,880 households due to increased migration to the mainland. The housing crisis in Puerto Rico led to an increase in bank repossessions, leaving 45%-55% of houses abandoned according to the American Bar Association.

The Hurricane

Hurricane Maria struck the island on October 2, 2017, significantly damaging causing around 250,000 houses. It completely destroyed 70,000 of those homes. At the time, now-ousted Governor Ricardo Rossello stated that Puerto Rico would allocate around $31 billion in funds to recover most of the properties.

Many of the properties that the hurricane destroyed were illegally erected buildings that violate building codes around the ocean side. That is because some of these houses are located in flooding zones and unstable hillsides, which prevent them from being rebuilt.

Five Years Later

Five years after Hurricane Maria struck the island, the housing crisis in Puerto Rico has barely seen improvement.  Tax breaks have attracted investors from the mainland. This has spurred skyrocketing housing costs around the island.  In turn, those rising housing prices have led to unaffordable housing for Puerto Rican citizens. This has also displaced many Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans around the island are troubled by the growing gentrification around the island as they fear permanent displacement. The growing sense of unease has increased tension around the island.

A Nonprofit Against Homelessness

Nonprofit organization Casa del Peregrino helps identify and assist the homeless population in Puerto Rico while operating with the goal of improving the quality of life and health on the island. Founded in 1997 after the local university surveyed that 67% of the population in Aguadilla were homeless, the organization began to distribute used clothing, meals and personal hygiene items. In recent years, the organization has expanded its services to include rehabilitation programs with drug and alcohol specialists and an emergency shelter with 20 sleeping spaces.

As the housing crisis continues to develop, the organization struggles to expand its outreach through the 78 towns that compose the island; currently, only 15% of the clients have been able to fully rehabilitate through its rehabilitation center. The organization’s lack of government funding or support portrays an overarching problem with homelessness left to grow without any governmental measure to meet ensure citizens’ needs.

The island continues to face many challenges that increase homelessness within the population while organizations similar to Casa del Peregrino stand to provide the necessary resources for the island’s citizens until they await a solution from the government.

– Nuria Munoz
Photo: Flickr

Food Systems in Puerto Rico
A World Central Kitchen agricultural assessment discovered that Puerto Rico imports 85% of its food from the mainland. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico only produces 15% of its products, with natural disasters constantly inhibiting the structures in place to produce these food items. A George Washington University survey showed that around 40% of Puerto Ricans reported food insecurity in 2020. The problems in food systems in Puerto Rico were a constant for many years in 2015, a study showed that 22% of adults on the island skipped meals or ate less as they could not afford to buy food. The Urban Institute projected a rise of 46% in poverty on the island due to the salary cuts and firing due to the pandemic.

Federal Assistance to Food Insecurity

In 2018, the government scrapped a law that allowed farmers to receive subsidies for their work and replaced it with an incentive-based production system. The Center of Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico found that out of 5,439 acres of public land that Puerto Rico saved for leasing and farming, 2,544 acres were not available for rent due to their dire conditions. After Hurricane Maria, a USDA report showed that Puerto Rico had lost 37% of the farms it previously had.

The federal assistance by the government has failed to help alleviate the food insecurity on the island as citizens cannot benefit from programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Program, a program that focuses on healthy food budgeting for families in need in the United States.

PRoduce and Other Programs in Puerto Rico

During the pandemic, the Puerto Rican government forgot school-based cafeteria programs as it left $290 million in federal funding untouched. Nonprofit organizations sued the Department of Education in response to the lack of use of these programs, which led the government to reopen cafeteria operations in many different public schools.

Different organizations have begun working to create a new agricultural culture in Puerto Rico as they look to increase food production by 25%. An example is PRoduce, an app on the island that looks to connect consumers directly with their producers to create sustainable food systems in Puerto Rico. According to an article by NextCity, the app saved more than 10,00 plantains after Hurricane Isaiah in 2020 as they purchased from 15 producers and sold the plantains at 30 cents each.

PRoduce was originally created to bring locally sourced ingredients to different chefs and cooks around the island, but the small scale and disorganization of the local food systems on the island led to the app not working. Around 40,000 users interact with the app with around 600 local producers to shop from as of 2022.

Looking Ahead

Nonprofit organizations around the island pave the way for more local food systems in Puerto Rico, hoping to decrease the dependence of the island on imports. These organizations look to slowly build a self-reliant food production system that will last through hurricanes and other natural disasters.

Nuria Munoz
Photo: Flickr

COVID-19’s Impact on Puerto RicoAs public schools in Puerto Rico switched to remote online learning during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, 56% of students could not attend online classes due to a lack of home internet connection. The education department reported that around 13,000 students received a failing grade in all their 2020-21 semester classes. The department blamed the failing grades on COVID-19’s impact on Puerto Rico. On November 18, 2021, the U.S. Department of Education approved a $3 billion plan to support the operations of public schools around the island and expand student opportunities amid the pandemic.

After Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017, a debilitated public school system closed off around 250 schools due to a lack of government funding to reconstruct the school’s facilities. The federal oversight board cut resources for the public education system that President Obama decreed in 2012 to cut down the national debt. This left professors with a decreased annual salary of $1,750.

Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Public Education System

COVID-19’s impact on Puerto Rico led to decreased student attendance to online classes because of a lack of access to online learning services due to increases in layoffs around the island as the lockdown forced businesses to close. According to an NBC report, many parents gave their cellphones to their children to log into the online classes. However, the format of the modules requires students to utilize computers, which leaves many students without access.

Secretary of Education Eligio Hernandez released a statement in February 2020 stating that students would pass to the next grade even if their grades did not fall under the minimum standard to complete the year. Many professors stated that the measure caused students to struggle in the current academic year as the students did not receive enough preparation to step into a higher grade.

According to an NPR article, professors took it upon themselves to clean up schools and buy the necessary materials for their classes due to government inaction. The professors said they had to pay for outside costs such as paint and decorations, which created a strain on their personal budgets.

After 2017, public school cafeterias played a crucial role in feeding 70% of students around the island. After the onset of the pandemic, the government closed down all public cafeterias due to health concerns. Then, after a lawsuit by mothers and nonprofit organizations, the government reopened cafeterias in May 2020.

Professors’ Respond to Program Cutbacks

Professors around the island have turned to social media to address the current systemic problems in the education system, seeking reform from Governor Pedro Pierluisi. On February 9, 2022, professors around the island hit the streets to protest the lack of resources for the public education system as the board continues to cut down funds.

Citizens have joined in on the mass protest spurred on by several professors around the island to ensure the government provides better resources to the schools in Puerto Rico. The governor responded with a public statement calling for the protests to stop and a new bill to increase teachers’ yearly salaries to $2,700.

The Federation of Professors on the island created a committee in conjunction with the government to negotiate better conditions within the public school system in accordance with professors. The committee is also looking to create a sustainable model for the retirement of public school professors who currently retire at 63.

The committee is set to meet within the first week of March 2022 to continue working on a proposal to implement measures to decrease COVID-19’s impact on Puerto Rico as the government looks to increase resources for public schools around the island.

The Future of the Public School System

Governor Pierluisi announced that professors would receive a monthly increase of $1,000 in their salaries starting in July 2021. Professors have returned to their posts looking to continue providing the necessary resources for students to catch up after several interruptions to the semester.

The new plan by the U.S. Department of Education should help fund the infrastructure of the public school system to return to pre-hurricane standards. Local officials will work alongside the department to determine how to use the money to fund the different areas of the public education system.

Nuria Diaz
Photo: Flickr

Medicaid Funding CrisisHundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans risk losing their access to health care in the near future. In Puerto Rico, about 1.4 million or about half of its citizens live in poverty. Accordingly, Medicaid covers approximately 46% of Puerto Rico’s population. However, United States government leaders can and should take actions that would help Puerto Rico escape the Medicaid funding crisis.

Medicaid in Puerto Rico

Because Puerto Rico is a territory, Medicaid funding in Puerto Rico differs greatly from that in the United States. The U.S. government reimburses U.S. states for a specific portion of what they spend on health care for the poor. This reimbursement ranges from 50% to 83%. If the need grows, the federal government’s contribution to states will grow as well. On the other hand, as a territory, Puerto Rico has a cap of 55% reimbursement. Even if the need increases, that cap does not increase. The federal government would reimburse Puerto Rico 83% if it had state status.

On top of this, starting in 1968, the U.S. federal government capped total dollars to reimburse Puerto Rico for Medicaid expenses. In 2019, government funding only covered 15% of the total cost of Medicaid in Puerto Rico. Due to this, Puerto Rico is experiencing a Medicaid funding crisis.

Inadequate and Unreliable Funds

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress provided emergency funding to help Puerto Rico escape the Medicaid funding crisis. Puerto Rico’s Medicaid budget for 2021 is $2.7 billion, which is seven times more than what it would have been if Congress had not granted temporary funding. However, the issue is that this funding is only short-term.

Year after year, Puerto Rico has to ask Congress for additional funds. Then, Congress must determine whether or not it should provide it. For this reason, Puerto Rico is unable to establish long-term planning or negotiate contracts with health care providers. The bottom line is that this leaves Puerto Rico always uncertain of whether it will receive sufficient finances to deliver vital health care services.

This uncertainty combined with Puerto Rico’s low Medicaid rates has influenced doctors and other health care workers to emigrate from the island. In turn, that is limiting the treatment and care available to patients. As a result, 72 of Puerto Rico’s 78 cities and towns have insufficient medical care. In particular, Vieques and Culebra suffer from poor health care access.

Necessary Actions

Puerto Rican Health Secretary Carlos Mellado believes that Puerto Rico should have parity with states for Medicaid funding. This means removing the reimbursement caps and funding Puerto Rico at 83%, which is at the top of the range for states. He visited Congress over the summer to advocate for Puerto Rican parity.

Beyond the Medicaid funding crisis, the Center for American Progress advocates eight measures that the Biden administration could do to provide parity and support for Puerto Rico. These include parity in interstate trade and a specific focus on providing health care access to Vieques and Culebra.

In general, adequate federal funding is the most long-term answer to the Medicaid funding crisis and several other issues Puerto Rico faces. As Health Secretary Mellado said, “It would be ideal if Puerto Rico could have Medicaid funding parity. That would be the most permanent solution to this issue.”

– Anna Lovelace
Photo: Unsplash