Fifteen years ago, Puerto Rico’s economy entered a death spiral when the United State’s federal government phased out a provision of the Puerto Rican tax code that gave U.S. corporations in Puerto Rico tax exemptions. Many companies moved out of Puerto Rico and unemployment rates went through the roof. It was the beginning of a calvary that hasn’t ended.
By 2015, Puerto Rico was more than $70 billion in debt. Two years later, in September 2017, hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the island. The estimated damages exceeded $100 billion and the death toll was estimated at over 4,500 people. When The Tablet visited three weeks after Hurricane Maria, we asked Archbishop Roberto González about his fears and hopes for the future.
“First of all, I have no fears about the future,” he said. “I feel very confident about the future because I have seen how our people have come together.”
He was not being naïve. We witnessed firsthand the incredible resilience and can-do attitude of the people of Puerto Rico during those difficult days. We saw an amazing capacity for solidarity and kindness on the island. “Puerto Rico will rise again” was a slogan we saw painted on the ruins of buildings.
But Archbishop González couldn’t predict what the future was going to bring to Puerto Rico in terms of suffering, political crisis, and natural disasters.
In July 2019, Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced he would resign after weeks of protests amidst a political scandal.
On Dec. 28, 2019, a magnitude 4.7 earthquake struck the island, followed by a magnitude 4.8 quake. Ten days later, another powerful earthquake struck.
Less than three months later, the island was — along with the rest of the world — confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic.
And over 6,000 less powerful — but still noticeable — quakes have struck Puerto Rico over the past year and a half.
The Catholic Church on the island has been leading the efforts to help the poorest of the poor in Puerto Rico. Catholic Charities USA has sent $6 million over the past two years. The Diocese of Brooklyn has done its part. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and Cardinal Timothy Dolan visited the island in October 2017 and brought $815,000 to help the recovery efforts. Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens previously sent 32,000 pounds of goods collected by over 56 parishes.
However, the problems Puerto Rico is facing right now can’t be solved by goodwill efforts alone. Puerto Rico needs a profound reform in its political structures to make them more transparent and efficient. There has to be a serious fight against corruption. The exodus of its most capable people has to be stopped by offering them real opportunities on the island. The relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States government has to be redefined. But the necessary reforms can’t be done without restoring minimal functionality to the infrastructure and the economy of the island.
That’s why religious leaders from the island recently wrote a letter to President Biden asking for help for its people.
In the middle of what appears to be an endless crisis, Archbishop González, recently told The Tablet: “People of Puerto Rico are religious by definition, and that religiosity gives one strength to live through these very tragic situations with a sense of hope and with a sense of trust that things, in the end, will work out.”
Let’s help to make his hopes true for our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico.