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Puerto Rico Tries to Recover and Rebuild After Years of Disasters, Financial Hardship

The Order of Malta volunteers in Puerto Rico distributing food at San Pedro Mártir parish in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Oct. 2017. (Photo: Jorge I. Domínguez-López)

‘Thank God Our People Are Resilient’

HARTFORD, CONN. — Father Enrique Camacho has lived with his parents in San Juan, Puerto Rico, since 2017. He moved there after Hurricane Maria destroyed the parish house where he lived. And like much of the island, it still hasn’t been rebuilt. 

Hurricane Maria came two weeks after Hurricane Irma devastated much of Puerto Rico. 

Fast forward to late 2019, when the island was riddled by a series of earthquakes that have continued to this day.

There have been so many earthquakes in Puerto Rico over the past year and a half — over 6,000 — that the sensation has stuck with Archbishop Roberto González Nieves of San Juan. Sometimes, Archbishop González said, he thinks the earth is shaking even when it’s not.

“There are still people that have not rebuilt since Maria. Then you have people that were affected in Hurricane Maria, and then what they had lost in the earthquake,” Father Camacho explained. “Then they have a pandemic, and … they lost their jobs. It’s a slew of problems at the same time, which is difficult to deal with.” 

In addition to the natural disasters, the United States’ unincorporated territory has been suffering from an economic crisis since 2006.

In a recent letter, Archbishop González, Bishop Rubén González Medina of Ponce, Father Camacho, and Jubilee USA Network joined prominent voices from other faiths to call on President Joe Biden to aid Puerto Rico. They are asking for actions that would supply financial aid to the poor and disabled, and to the country for disaster relief, as well as bring job opportunities. 

They first called on Biden to instruct the Department of Justice to withdraw an appeal filed last year that blocks $2.3 billion in annual aid for aged, blind and disabled people with little to no income in Puerto Rico through Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments. The money would help 300,000 U.S. citizens, according to the letter. 

The payments are available to citizens in the 50 states, Washington D.C. and the Mariana Islands, but not Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories, like Guam and the Virgin Islands.

The letter also requests that Biden expand and fully fund the Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicare, Medicaid, earned income tax credit, and child tax credit for the “nearly 60 percent” of Puerto Rico’s children and U.S. citizens living in poverty. 

“There’s a new kind of poor people that were not poor. They were middle class, and right now there’s a lot of jobs that are not available and they are getting to be poor,” explained Father Camacho, the executive director of Caritas Puerto Rico, part of Catholic Charities USA. 

The pandemic is part of the reason. However, Father Camacho also points to better work conditions elsewhere that take people out of Puerto Rico.

“People who are professionals like accountants, doctors, lawyers, even policemen, and teachers, usually they don’t have any option than to fly and look for better opportunities for their families,” Father Camacho said. 

His brother, an engineer, is one example. As Father Camacho recalls, his company told him his job wasn’t secure in Puerto Rico, but he could relocate to Miami, keep his position and double his salary. 

“He didn’t want to leave because we are a very close family, but he didn’t have a choice,” Father Camacho said. “The brains are all leaving, and that’s a big problem.” 

The letter explicitly calls Biden to implement measures to return pharmaceutical manufacturing jobs to Puerto Rico, which would “spur economic recovery and job creation.” 

Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA Network, notes that Puerto Rico already has a significant pharmaceutical manufacturing sector. In 2006, when section 936 — a Puerto Rican tax code provision that gave U.S. corporations in Puerto Rico tax exemptions — was phased out by the federal government, it meant “overnight 100,000 well-paying jobs left Puerto Rico.”

Finally, the letter asserts that Puerto Rico needs another $50 billion in recovery aid. Father Camacho noted many homes don’t have roofs. Archbishop González also looks at education as an area aid is needed.  

“The assistance will be of great help to children and youth who need to go back to school in a safe environment,” Archbishop González said. “Some of the schools have closed. The walls were cracked or the buildings were semi-destroyed, so that goes back to hurricane Maria. 

“They would have classes outside in tents, but obviously, that has diminished with the COVID situation.”

Both Archbishop González and Father Camacho also acknowledged the crucial role Catholic organizations have played in recovery efforts. According to Brian Corbin, Catholic Charities USA executive vice president of member services, Catholic Charities USA has sent Puerto Rico 6 million dollars for the crises over the past two years. 

Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens previously sent 32,000 pounds of goods collected by over 56 parishes. It’s also worked with CCUSA to raise $32,000 in cash donations. 

On the last week of April, 2018, 14 volunteers from Catholics Care, the Diocese of Brooklyn’s disaster recovery team, went to help in the hurricane devastated area of Yabucoa, Puerto Rico.

Father Camacho said Caritas Puerto Rico has distributed about 800,000 boxes of food through a program with the United States Department of Agriculture. And another program out of Catholic Charities Omaha will create a micro-business incubator for Puerto Ricans to participate in. 

“That is very important because what we really need is to have tools. If people don’t have tools to get on their feet, we are going to stay like this or be worse every year,” Father Camacho said. 

Asked what’s gotten the people of Puerto Rico through all they’ve endured, Father Camacho and Archbishop González pointed to resilience and faith. 

“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,” Archbishop Gonzalez said. 

Father Camacho continued, “Thank God our people are very resilient. We can have passed through all those days, and we are still smiling. 

“We try to see the good side of this and how we can learn and be better.”