Puerto Rico's Battered Economy: The Greece Of The Caribbean?

Feb 6, 2013
Originally published on February 6, 2013 9:51 am

Puerto Rico's population is declining. Faced with a deteriorating economy, increased poverty and a swelling crime rate, many citizens are fleeing the island for the U.S. mainland. In a four-part series, Morning Edition explores this phenomenon, and how Puerto Rico's troubles are affecting its people and other Americans in unexpected ways.

Edward Bonet's mom no longer tries to convince him to join her in Florida. Unlike his family, the 23-year-old from Puerto Rico refuses to leave the island and its shattered economy.

With Puerto Rico's unemployment rate at 14 percent, many former residents like Edward's mom, Arlene Bonet, have left the island's economic and social troubles for better opportunities on the U.S. mainland.

"What kind of life can I give my grandchildren in the future if Puerto Rico, instead of going up, is going down?" says Arlene, who left after her real estate business died.

On the island, Edward works as a scuba instructor, trying to make a living for himself. Like many other young Puerto Ricans, he started college but couldn't afford to finish.

And though he briefly lived in Florida as a kid with his mom, Edward says he doesn't want to go back because it seems foreign. Puerto Rico may be a U.S. territory, but the move would feel like going to a new country as an immigrant, he says.

"In the U.S., at school we had to sing the national 'Star-Spangled Banner' every morning," he recalls. "And here, most schools don't do that at all."

A Love For The Island

One member of his ever-shrinking family still on the island is his grandmother, Genoveva Camacho, 74. He lives with her near the city of Cabo Rojo.

"My grandma, oh, she's great," Edward says when describing her. "She parties more than I do."

On a warm, breezy night, he sits with her on their patio listening to the chirps of coquis, or small frogs — a symbol of Puerto Rico.

Camacho is full of pride. She says she loves her island and used to go dancing with friends about every night. But today, she worries about escalating crime and paying her bills.

Her daughter, Arlene, urges Camacho to join her in Florida, but she insists she won't leave until she gets older. Then "save a room for me," Camacho tells her daughter when they speak on the phone.

As she talks about her daughter, Camacho chokes up until Edward dances with her under the porch light.

Puerto Rico's 'Informal Economy'

The failing economy may not be enough to keep Edward and his grandmother off the island, but it's a predicament that economists mull over time and again.

Rosario Rivera, an economics professor at the University of Puerto Rico, uses the phrase "informal economy" to diagnose some of the challenges facing the island.

At the Rio Piedras market in San Juan, Rivera picks up a juicy, sweet fruit for 25 cents, from a man with a shopping cart.

"That orange ... goes to the informal economy," Rivera explains.

Because those tax-free purchases are repeated so often, Rivera says the government is missing the chance to tax billions of dollars of income each year. Like many Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico has little industry of its own — and when times are bad, they struggle even more than other places to create jobs.

"There is a problem deep inside the economic structure, that you cannot create jobs," Rivera explains. "You cannot create productive activity, so you just have to rely on economic activity from abroad."

Around the market, men and women sell ice cream, discounted jewelry, perfumes and purses — yet most of the goods are imported and not made by anyone on the island. After a six-year recession, Puerto Rico is buried in debt.

Fiscally Similar To Greece

"They have compared us to Greece a lot of times," Rivera says. "Especially since Greece had a lot of debt, and they had to take these austerity measures. Even if we are part of the United States, we have a lot of problems that resemble those countries that we look at with such disdain."

Puerto Rico has been through austerity and made tough decisions: It's cut government jobs, privatized a couple of highways, and is in the process of privatizing the international airport.

But unlike the case of Greece, the economic mess is on America's hands.

For U.S. citizens on the mainland who have a 401(k) account or pension for retirement, it's possible that they have money invested in Puerto Rican bonds, which are now no longer worth much. So citizens in the states could feel the pain if Puerto Rico's economy collapses.

At the moment, though, Puerto Ricans left on the island are bearing the brunt of the economy, where fewer services and resources are available to people than before. With many educated people leaving the island, Rivera admits she's thought of moving to the mainland — but she won't do it.

"If you had asked me a few years ago, I would say no with capital letters — I won't leave the island. I'm here for the long haul," Rivera says. "And I am here for the long haul. But it gets tiresome."

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Here are a few facts about Puerto Rico that might grab your attention. The unemployment rate is 14 percent - higher than anywhere else in the United States. The island had more murders last year per capita than Mexico. The economy is drawing comparisons to Greece.


People on that island who are American citizens are escaping all this, moving mostly to the U.S. mainland - people like Arlene Bonet.

ARLENE BONET: What kind of life I can give my grandchildren in the future if Puerto Rico, instead of going up, is going down?

GREENE: Arlene found work and a new life for herself in Florida. We met her there yesterday as we began a series looking at Puerto Rico's challenges. This morning, the family Arlene left behind.


GREENE: We're beginning here on the southern shore of the island. There are smaller cities here, smaller beach towns, and also an oceanside resort where we went to meet Arlene's son Edward where he works.

EDWARD BONET: The boat just got here. We're heading towards the dock now.

GREENE: Edward works here as a scuba instructor. He's 23 years old and his story is all too familiar on this island. He started college but couldn't afford to finish. He's trying to make a life for himself here, even as his family moves away. He and his mom do stay in touch. How often does she talk to you on the phone and say, Edward, you know you could move to Florida? You could come join me up here?

BONET: Well, when she moved out, each time we spoke on the phone, she always like try. But after a couple of times she just quit.

GREENE: One reason Edward is so determined to stay is because the mainland seems like such a foreign place, with different traditions and different routines. Edward tried it once. He and his mom lived briefly in Florida when he was a kid.

BONET: In the U.S. at school we had to sing the national "Star Spangled Banner" every morning. And here, most schools don't do it at all.

GREENE: You and I are both U.S. citizens. Do you feel that way? I mean, do you feel like a U.S. citizen?

BONET: Well, it's not that we are not - we don't feel like we're the U.S. It's like we feel we're part of them but we're not you.

GREENE: And yet at home in Puerto Rico, his family is shrinking. One person left on the island is his grandma, Veva. Edward lives with her and she relies on him now that her daughter's in Florida. Tell me a little bit about her.

BONET: Oh, my grandma, she's great. I mean she parties more than I do.



GREENE: She lives about 45 minutes away from where he works. It's near the city of Cabo Rojo. We drove past strip malls and we found a neighborhood of small houses. The patios where people sit and chat were behind metal gates.

BONET: Hola.

VEVA: (Spanish spoken)

GREENE: I'm glad we were able to find you. I hear you like going out at night.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She loves dancing. She loves parties, and she loves casinos.

GREENE: Oh good. I like the casinos too. I'm not so good at the dancing. On a warm, breezy night, we sat down on her patio. Veva, who's 74, remembers a Puerto Rico when people had money to spend and the streets were safe enough for her to go out with friends whenever she wanted to. Today she worries about paying her bills and crime. Her family worries too and they want her to move to Florida with them.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, they talk about it and she always says she's not going to leave, but when she gets older, save a room for me.

GREENE: Talking about this got her a little choked up but the smile was back when we asked her to show off her dance moves.

VEVA: (Spanish spoken)


GREENE: Grandma and grandson danced together for us right there under the porch light. And something about this scene said so much about Puerto Rico. This island, with its rich cultural heritage and music, pulls people to stay, even as other forces push them to leave. Now, this is just one family, but everywhere we went we heard stories like this, time and time again - families wondering if and when to go.


GREENE: We said goodbye to Veva's family and drove three hours north to the capital, San Juan. We wanted, among other things, to understand what is ailing the economy here. We went to the Rio Piedras Market to do a little shopping with Rosario Rivera. She's an economics professor at the University of Puerto Rico. Let's buy some fruit.


GREENE: Can we buy some fruit?


GREENE: She walked us past little stalls on the sidewalk that were selling clothing, DVDs. One man was selling oranges out of a shopping cart. He's actually peeling it for me.

RIVERA: Yep. That's classic.

GREENE: He's rotating and curling off the peel.

RIVERA: Yeah. Taste it.

GREENE: Oh, that's really good. Juicy.

RIVERA: Juicy and sweet.

GREENE: OK. So this delicious orange that we just bought out of...

RIVERA: For 25 cents.

GREENE: ...for 25 cents - what can I learn about the Puerto Rican economy from this delicious, juicy orange?

RIVERA: That orange that you bought for 25 cents goes to the informal economy.

GREENE: You don't get the sense that this guy is filling out his tax papers.

RIVERA: I don't think so.

GREENE: Informal economy - it's an important phrase when diagnosing the problems here. Like many Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico has little industry of its own, and when times are bad, they struggle even more than other places to create jobs. And so much of the economic activity is whatever's (unintelligible). This man's selling ice cream from a cart, people selling loads of discount jewelry, perfume, purses. The problem is, when people buy stuff in places like this, the government is missing out on taxing billions of dollars of income, which conjures up images of another place with a lot of sunshine and a lot of debt.

RIVERA: They have compared us to Greece a lot of times, especially since Greece had a lot of debt and they have to take these austerity measures. Even if we are part of the United States, we have a lot of problems that resemble those countries that we look with so much disdain.

GREENE: But something makes this place so different from Greece. Dealing with the economic mess is America's responsibility.

RIVERA: If we don't pay the debt, stuff is going to happen.

GREENE: And here's how it could affect you. Even if you've never been to Puerto Rico or even thought about it, Puerto Rico's government has issued government bonds, and if you've got a 401(k) or pension for retirement, chances are some of your money is invested in those bonds. They are now near junk status, and all this means you can feel the pain if Puerto Rico's economy collapses. At the moment, though, Professor Rivera says Puerto Ricans on this island are bearing the brunt of this.

RIVERA: So less and less services and less and less resources for the people.

GREENE: A lot of educated people are leaving. And I wonder, have you and your husband talked about leaving and going to the mainland?

RIVERA: Sadly, I have to say yes. If you asked me that a few years ago, I would say no with capital letters. I won't leave the island. I am here for the long haul. And I am here for the long haul, but it gets tiresome.

GREENE: That's Rosario Rivera. She's an economist. We're still at the Rio Piedras Market. I wanted to take you over here to this jewelry store. We heard about a shooting here just the other day. Crime, it is another big problem on this island, and another big reason a lot of people are leaving for the mainland. We'll pick up that conversation tomorrow right here at the market.


GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.