Action Alert: Puerto Rico In Crisis
Before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico experienced decades of environmental and social injustice, now ignored far too long. Now it’s time to rebuild, together, and prepare for the next one.
As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, my family made near annual pilgramages to Puerto Rico, exposing me to its rich landscape. Our visits to Caguas, where my parents were born and spent their early childhood, allowed me to understand the humble beginnings of our family. And touring the island expanded my view of the world, enjoying its vast, rich natural treasures — and since then, I have only observed its slow decline over the last few decades.
El Yunque, the only national rainforest in the United States has been victim to “the dual processes of climate change and deforestation.” Tourism has not helped. In 2007, when one of the island’s best kept secrets became exposed, the island experienced a boom and lechoneras in the rural town of Guavate became a popular tourist site, almost overnight.
Puerto Rico’s economy has relied heavily on manufacturing and the service industry, with tourism being a main driver. And today, the agricultural sector contributes less than 1% to the island’s GDP. The island has been depleted of its natural resources post-Colonialism — sugar, coffee and tobacco crops fueled the island’s first economic revolution. That led to overfarming and there was little efforts to preserve land. Agriculture quickly became unsustainable and inefficient for the island’s most lucrative exports entering the 1960's — so much so that a new generation of the island’s inhabitants lost precious land for home-grown food. As a result, my relatives have complained how they pay more for platanos and guandules then we do.
In the 1970’s, Congress passed a tax exemption for companies originating income from U.S. territories, and the island successfully attracted big brand manufacturers, many of whom were pharmaceutical companies. Those terms expired in 2006, and major brands like Pfizer established plans to close their operations on the island.
Once again, Puerto Rico has been left to take care of itself as it relives another period of damage caused by unsustainable practices extracting more resources than it can afford. The cumulative impact has been sinking the island’s economy, taking jobs away and further threatening the island’s infrastructure. Over just the last decade, we have seen a further exodus from the island, and today over 4 million people of the Puerto Rican diaspora live outside the island — this is more than the estimated 3.5 million people who live there today.
Our goal is bold — raise as much money to rebuild Puerto Rico’s infrastructure — and improve its resilience against an increasing threat from climate change.
Puerto Rico’s infrastructure has been in decline, while its debt increases exponentially — over $70 billion in debt remain. So much has been written about the island’s financial crisis, and there have been some recent attempts to draw attention to this offering incentives to the technology sector and entrepreneurs. But the island can no longer move forward alone. It needs help desperately from so many of us on the mainland, and it is time for us to take action.
For me, my family and for the millions of American tourists who have visited the island, Puerto Rico has served as a popular vacation spot without need for a passport. Tourism was projected to be over 10 million visitors in 2016 alone — double the number of tourists from the prior year. That’s 3 times the total current population of the island!
Congress has ignored this crisis for far too long, and now climate change has pushed the situation in Puerto Rico, beyond the tipping point. If we do not help Puerto Rico now, we are turning our backs on generations of people who fought for our independence and citizenship, served in our military and sacrificed its natural resources and self-sustaining agricultural economy to serve ever-growing populations on the mainland.
An entire culture and history now lives in the balance. Puerto Rico gave me life, now it’s time to breathe life back into it. I will be inviting you — the public — the average American to join a unique relief, rebuilding and resilience effort that will raise funds for critical long-term investment in the island. Inevitably, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean has not seen the last of hurricanes and we have global warming and rising waters to consider when considering how future generations can thrive on these islands.
The goal is bold — raise as much money as we can to help rebuild Puerto Rico’s infrastructure — and improve its resilience against an increasing threat from climate change. Over the next few weeks, I along with a team of volunteers — largely from the Puerto Rican diaspora and others — will be mobilizing for the long-term with a goal of raising over $1 billion.
Sound crazy? Let’s do simple math — if every one of the 10 million tourists that visited Puerto Rico last year donates $100, we can raise $1 billion to start. That’s less than 5% of the entire U.S. adult population donating $100 each. And if you think it’s not possible, remember Greece. We can do this.