The human rights of Puerto Ricans have been radically affected as the U.S. government works with Commonwealth officials to manage and reduce the debt crisis in Puerto Rico. Essential public services including healthcare, education, social security and basic necessities of food and housing have been undermined as further spending cuts were made in an attempt to recover the economy.
After being in an economic recession for nearly a decade, Puerto Rico relinquished control of its finances after filing for bankruptcy in May 2017. The lack of protection under Chapter Nine bankruptcy leaves the government in Puerto Rico with fewer means to restructure debt. With their inalienable right to self-determination in jeopardy, citizens of Puerto Rico faced the opportunity to claim equal rights as U.S. citizens by voting for statehood, according to Governor Ricardo Rosselló. With only 23 percent of eligible voters casting ballots on June 11, the quest for financial relief and development remains in the hands of the U.S. Congress.
Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory with its own constitution and government. Island residents elect a governor and members to the island’s legislature, but they may not vote in the U.S. general election for president and they do not have a voting member of Congress. Becoming the fifty-first state would allow the island access to bankruptcy protection, although many still oppose statehood.
The financial crisis is also deteriorating human rights in Puerto Rico in terms of health care. Low-income citizens are currently only able to access healthcare through Affordable Care Act funds, which are nearly exhausted. With these funds running out, Puerto Rico could use all of its Medicaid funding, plunging the island into a health crisis, and putting healthcare for the poor and elderly in danger.
Among the 400,000 people who have left for the mainland since 2004 are doctors and physicians, primarily for economic opportunities. Puerto Rican residents have lower household incomes and higher child poverty rates than those living in the U.S. With an increasing number of hospital closures, Puerto Ricans are at risk of losing access to healthcare services.
The debt crisis has also shed light on discriminatory policies affecting human rights in Puerto Rico for people with disabilities. Puerto Ricans with disabilities are excluded from the federal Supplemental Security Income program (SSI), leaving them to rely on limited support. SSI provides American citizens with disabilities residing in the U.S. with $540 per month, while the federal Aid to the Aged, Blind, or Disabled Program can only provide Puerto Ricans with disabilities $74 per month.
Basic necessities such as the right to adequate food and housing are slipping out of financial reach in Puerto Rico. The cost of living on the island is high, with grocery products 21 percent higher than the U.S. average. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in Puerto Rico is 11 percent, and with 45 percent of residents below the line of poverty, adequate housing has become increasingly difficult to pay for.
Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, an independent expert on the effects of foreign debt on human rights, said, “Schools are paying a significant amount of their funds to provide school children at least with one decent meal.” The right to education has been steadily declining in Puerto Rico, with 150 schools being closed and an anticipated 600 due to close within the next five years.
Whether the island becomes a state or a nation, one thing is clear: financial reform measures must ensure that human rights in Puerto Rico are protected.
– Jennifer Mcallister