Way to go, Congress.
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Puerto Rico is on the verge of economic collapse. Compounding the Caribbean territory’s woes is the one-two kick in the crotch of total political irrelevance and a host of laws that seem authored by Wall Street. John Oliver dedicated Sunday’s Last Week Tonight to breaking down the ongoing crisis, and guest performer Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of Hamilton, gave a killer live performance calling on Congress to take action.
If you haven’t followed the news, here’s the skinny: Earlier this year, the government of Puerto Rico defaulted on a portion of its approximately $72 billion in debt to creditors. The U.S. has more than a little skin in this game. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and its financial woes directly affect 3.5 million American citizens.
But so far Congress hasn’t done much of anything. Why? Because “citizen” is a tricky word. I’ll let Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), take this one: “[Puerto Ricans] need help from Congress, but Congress has failed to act,” she said recently from the floor of Congress. “Why? A big part of the reason is because the people of Puerto Rico can’t participate fully in our democracy.”
Bingo. Puerto Ricans became statutory citizens of the U.S. (as opposed to constitutional citizens) in 1917, and that’s precisely the time Congress stopped giving a damn. The island territory’s residents can serve in the military, but they can’t vote in the U.S. the way natural-born citizens can. Members of Congress live and die by their constituents’ votes, so there’s not much incentive to spend political capital getting their hands dirty with Puerto Rico’s escalating crisis.
But being a territory must come with some perks, like the full economic protections and benefits afforded legal U.S. entities, right? Nope! Turns out Puerto Rico, once a tax haven for American companies, is suffering thanks to a tangle of laws conceived in greed and dedicated to the proposition that Wall Street rules.
While the territory had the right to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy from 1933 to 1984, that privilege was lost in a strange piece of legislation for which there seems to be no historical explanation. Especially egregious, Puerto Rico is obligated under law to pay back its bonds—many of which are held by U.S. interests—before paying for basic services like schools and hospitals.
With a potential outbreak of Zika on the way, the timing couldn’t be worse. “Public hospitals have closed floors and are rationing medicine at a time when health experts fear a surge in Zika infections that can cause birth defects,” writes the Times editorial board. The Wall Street Journal is taking a more pragmatic look, pointing out that Congress really does have an incentive to act: The massive population of U.S. citizens with Puerto Rican heritage living in Florida could help oust Marco Rubio and vote in a Democratic nominee for president in November if the Republican-led Congress doesn’t intervene.
Of all the voies calling for action, Miranda’s may be the most eloquent. The composer and performer, who is of Puerto Rican descent, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times, and on Sunday he performed on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Standing on a sparse stage with piano accompaniment, it was an emotional personal appeal:
Yeah, my family's from
Puerto Rico. The tropical destination
Where you can spend your Washingtons,
The spot where you vacation
A commonwealth with not a lot o' wealth, a not-quite nation
Seventy billion dollar topic of conversation
Hopin' to God John Oliver's comical dissertation
Resonates with the Congress that got us in this situation
Along with suicidal tax incentive declarations:
"Yeah, we'll pay your bonds first. Close the hospital, fuck the patients."
This is an island a hundred miles across
A hurricane is coming and we're runnin' up a loss
You can check out the full lyrics here.