Afederal judge in the U.S. District Court of Puerto Rico issued a landmark opinion Aug. 7 relating to a lawsuit filed by the Territory’s House of Representatives and the Senate. In her 39-page decision, Honorable Judge Laura Taylor Swain stated that the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, created under the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act of 2016 (PROMESA), has unlimited power to rule by decree over the lives of more than 3.3 million U.S. citizens.
According to her decision, implementing public policy on the island, a U.S. territory since 1898, is now in the hands of the seven non-elected members sitting on the oversight board. In essence, the board have supplanted the people’s right to choose its own government through the ballot box. This is a dangerous precedent in any democratic form of government, but even more so in the United States, which for decades has laid claim to be the beacon of democracy and freedom around the world.
With all due respect, we do not concur with the decision. In fact, this historic decision is now a major stain in the democratic process of the United States because it throws away the basic and fundamental cornerstone of our nation: One vote, one voice. The voice of the people has been silenced. This cannot stand.
We recognize that due to our condition as the world’s oldest colony, Congress has broad powers over the lives of the all U.S. citizens living on the territory, thus came PROMESA, which was imposed two years ago for two main reasons. First, the lack of tools available to the Puerto Ricans, under the colony, in order to develop the economy, create jobs and sustain the population’s basic needs. For example, Puerto Rico receives just 55 percent of Medicaid refunds, while states are allowed a maximum of 83 percent reimbursement. This kind of disparity is felt in all federal program allocations to the island, thus condemning our people, U.S. citizens all, to lesser benefits and opportunities.
This colonial regime, which I have dedicated most of my adult life advocating against, has to end now.
The second reason was the overwhelming incompetence of the past administration, which destroyed the public finances, imposing more than 60 new taxes on individuals and businesses, while raising some 40 others, which resulted in an unprecedented economic stagnation. Those fiscally irresponsible actions led to the first default of payment on the government’s issued debt. It also contributed to a massive structural debt estimated at more than $71 million.
We are also in the middle of the longest economic recession in the history of the United States. Our economy began its contraction right about the last quarter of 2005 — 13 years ago. We have not seen two consecutive quarters of growth in well over a decade, and our labor force has dipped below the 1 million mark.
Because of those two facts, Congress decided to act, approving H.R. 5278, better known as PROMESA, to assist the local government get over the cliff and to reinstate fiscal stability, but not to govern. Never in the legislative process of H.R. 5278, either in public hearings or conversations with the White House, did the premise of granting an unchecked, authoritarian power to the oversight board come up. On the contrary. The first suggested name to the board was that of “Control”; it was changed to “Supervision” because that’s their mission — to supervise, not to control our government.
The decision by Judge Swain goes against the genesis of PROMESA and against democratic rule. But in the end, we need more than PROMESA, we need equality with the 50 states of the Union. That’s why we are requesting that Congress grant Puerto Rico statehood status urgently, according to the will of the U.S. citizens living on the territory who twice in the last six years have expressed their desire to join the Union as state.
We cannot sustain the current situation. The oversight board cannot have so much power over our lives. Congress and the White House need to act now, not next year. The United States has to end its colonial rule in Puerto Rico.
• Carlos “Johnny” Mendez Nunez is speaker of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives.