Dear President Obama: Puerto Rico needs your help to survive

Rep. Luis Gutierrez
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AP

* Illinois Congressman Luis Gutiérrez, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, is currently visiting the island.  He wrote this open letter to President Obama about Puerto Rico's economic crisis. It was originally published by Univision in Spanish.

Dear Mr. President:

I remember with fondness our conversations when you were a freshly minted U.S. Senator from our home state of Illinois, and your kind words about seeking my advice and counsel on matters related to Puerto Rico.

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Given the current circumstances, I feel I need to seek your help for the people of the "Island of Enchantment."

The trade winds still blow warmly and the sea still laps the beaches with its mixture of blue, green and turquoise. The people are just as friendly and energetic, and the music, the banter and the rich smells of Puerto Rican cooking seem to come from every window and doorway.

I am in the homeland of my father, and if I may borrow a phrase you used to describe your recent visit to Kenya, Puerto Rico is “deeply personal to me.”  We are spiritually connected to the birthplaces of our fathers in profound ways.

But there is a great cloud hanging over Puerto Rico – thicker and more ominous than the clouds that shroud the Yunque rainforest – and it bodes ill for the future of the island’s inhabitants.  Puerto Rico has come into debt with loan sharks, the kind who ply their trade on Wall Street.

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Now the sharks are circling, demanding payment even if that means taking police off the streets, teachers out of schools, and nurses from hospitals. They want repayment of $73 billion in bonds – and that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the totality of Puerto Rico’s debt situation.

And the billionaires on Wall Street want payment on their terms so that they can pad their investment portfolios.

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The debt cloud fouls the economy and dampens the spirit of the people, but it is not just a question of dollars and cents. People, especially the young, are departing Puerto Rico by the thousands, which leaves behind an ever-growing hole in the hearts of families and neighborhoods.

Just as during my parents’ generation, there is a great exodus to the United States of those seeking futures and prosperity unavailable in their homeland. Each Puerto Rican carries with them a bit of the island and its unique culture – which enriches the United States – but diminishes hope for those who remain here to cope in Puerto Rico.

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I suggest to you that it is long past time when action and intervention is needed. This colony of the United States is afflicted with many of the same burdens of colonialism as your father’s native Kenya. But unlike modern Kenya – and the United States – it does not have the independence and freedom to determine its own destiny.

As the colonial power, the United States of America has a responsibility to see that the current crisis is resolved, but more importantly that Puerto Rico has a stable and self-sustaining economy moving forward.

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Section 936 of the U.S. Tax Code was eliminated in 2005 and was the primary incentive for U.S. business to invest in Puerto Rico. And the investments were real, not just on paper. Companies created jobs that buoyed the economy and strengthened families. Now the investment comes from hedge funds on Wall Street buying up and selling debt, bleeding the island’s economy.

In Puerto Rico, leaders have limited tools to address the problem given their colonial situation and some are too distracted by the status issue and the fantasy of statehood. Alone, Puerto Rico cannot cope with the current crisis without the cooperation of the United States.

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Left to their own devices, the billionaires, bondholders and hedge funds on Wall Street will surely take action, but it will not be action that benefits anyone but themselves and will exact a huge cost on Puerto Ricans.

As for the gridlocked, do-nothing U.S. Congress, it rarely takes constructive action even under the best of circumstances. But with no campaign contributors or vocal lobbying efforts, action would be a miracle.

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So I ask you, Mr. President to play a deeper, personal role. Wall Street power brokers, Puerto Rico’s beleaguered government, disengaged members of Congress, and especially the people of Puerto Rico need to see someone step up and take charge.

Specifically, I want you to call on Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to convene the major stakeholders – financial, political, and social – to come together in a summit to resolve the immediate Puerto Rican debt crisis, but also to set the stage for the renewal of Puerto Rico’s economy.

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Secretary Lew is the most powerful banker in the world and his office has, over the decades, been able to bring captains of industry, financial powers, and the interests of working people together to craft solutions on behalf of the greater good.

It is just the sort of financial diplomacy that Puerto Rico needs. The Treasury Secretary, under your guidance, is no less qualified than your Secretary of State to negotiate delicate multilateral agreements where competing interests must compromise to resolve a crisis of major proportions.

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Your reasoned approach to consensus-building is sorely needed. It is the first step in reestablishing an economic engine in Puerto Rico that will create jobs. Jobs that build a tax-base. Jobs that stop the hemorrhaging of population loss.

The people of Puerto Rico need the United States of America to immediately assume its legal, political, and moral responsibility for Puerto Rico. They do not need a bailout or a temporary patch that leads to greater indebtedness. They need a mutually agreed-upon plan to move forward towards self-sufficiency charted in good faith.

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I know they are willing to come to the table earnestly to work with honest brokers to resolve their debt crisis.

But Puerto Ricans need a leader of your stature – and the cooperation of the United States – to achieve a resolution that adequately balances the demands of the powerful with the hopes and desires of the humble people of Puerto Rico.

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