The victims of the debt crisis on the island of Puerto Rico “are not any government – they are my people.”
These were the words of Archbishop Roberto González Nieves of San Juan regarding the island’s $72 billion debt, which he said has become a “death spiral”.
Archbishop González Nieves weighed in on the crisis in an op-ed piece written for Time Magazine. With more and more Puerto Ricans fleeing the island in search of a better life leading to less revenue, those who remain are left to suffer increasing tax hikes, thus increasing loans and debt.
“Already the island is feeling the impact of austerity—last fall, the Department of Health cancelled emergency helicopter service due to lack of funds,” he wrote. “Debt is bringing death and increased hardship to our people.”
Due to their states as a U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Rico is not eligible to receive low-interest rate loans available to island nations, nor are they eligible to apply for U.S. bankruptcy protection, available to cities and states.
“The Catholic Church has a long tradition of connecting the dots between debt and poverty, between complex global economic structures and our most basic religious teachings about human dignity,” he wrote. “His Holiness Pope Francis continually reminds us that bad policies about debt and taxes hurt the most vulnerable.”
A ‘Jubilee Year’
Recalling the biblical concept of the Jubilee year, in which debt forgiveness and liberation of slaves occurred every 50 years, Archbishop González Nieves proposed a similar approach to the island’s crippling debt crisis.
“Now is the time for a Jubilee for Puerto Rico,” the archbishop wrote.
The Archbishop of San Juan praised the efforts of Jubilee USA Network, an alliance comprised of organizations and faith communities that works towards financial reforms and debt relief.
Highlighting the need for lenders to cancel some of the island’s debt and extending other payments into the future, Archbishop González Nieves said that the U.S. Congress also needs to step up and play a role in helping the island. Legislation has recently been introduced that would allow Puerto Rican entities to declare bankruptcy.
“Although not a perfect solution, bankruptcy protection would provide a more fair, transparent system for resolving Puerto Rico’s debt burden and creating the fiscal space we need to grow our economy and serve our people”, he wrote.
“Congress should pass this legislation immediately.”
Concluding his article, Archbishop González Nieves stressed the need for the establishment of an international bankruptcy system that protects both borrowers and lenders. He also recalled the Pope’s message during his recent visit to Bolivia, which the Archbishop of San Juan attended.
“The pope called for ‘economics at the service of man’, he wrote. “My prayer is that Puerto Rico could be a model for the Holy Father’s vision.”