Puerto Rico in Context

by Gil Hall

The perception of Puerto Rico as “la isla del encanto” (“the island of enchantment”) was shattered when when Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla declared in an interview to the New York Times in late June 2015 that the island would not be able to pay back the ~$73 billion it had borrowed.

Overnight the world became VERY interested in Puerto Rico.

For those of us who have been studying Puerto Rico for years, this sudden attention was a bit surreal: our obscure topic–one that theretofore had been guaranteed to lull interlocutors to sleep–was suddenly being taken up by the world. 

And in a big way. Hoards of English-speaking national and international journalists and pundits hopped on planes and traveled to San Juan to cover the story.

I have no idea what actual preparation these people did, but here is what I imagine: on the trip to Puerto Rico: they read Wikipedia pages; googled some of the players; read the Economist, WSJ, and Guardian pieces from the last couple years. (All in English, of course.)

On arrival, they hit the ground running and churned out new stories daily about the crisis.

And the pieces were terrible; very few had even the most basic information correct.

There are many reasons covering PR is difficult. To list a few:

  • This is not a single crisis. There are multiple, complex, interrelated crises: economic, health, police, education, et al.
  • English is used in some documents, but Spanish is the dominant written and spoken language. The majority of Puerto Ricans are not bilingual. The vast majority of US and international reporters covering the issue are monolingual English speakers.
  • Structure of the debt is complex. Eighteen different issuers. Bonds of all types, sizes, each unique in terms, guarantee, law.
  • Law. PR’s Civil Code comes from the Napoleonic Code, and is substantially different than the Common Law used in the US.
  • Political parties. In intra-island politics, there are no Democrats or Republicans. Instead, there are three major parties, organized principally around how voters see the future of the island: status quo (PDP); statehood (PNP); independence (PIP).
  • Basic information can be hard to obtain.
    • Data are contradictory and/or are not available in standard electronic formats.
    • PR often does not follow standard accounting and actuarial methods.
    • PR rarely files documents on time. Even important one can be years late.
    • There is no freedom of information act. If a polite request fails, the only option is to file a court case.
  • Worldview. How the outside world sees PR is different from how PR sees itself.

As I write this in October 2015, the news coverage has improved. There are a few journalists who have come up to speed and are doing pretty good work. But the majority of the reports are still bad; they still contain patently false information, yet reach hundreds of thousands of readers, viewers, and policy makers.

To make matters worse, the PR crisis gets more complex by the minute–and not in trivial ways. Recent complications: contract law in PR v. NY; bankruptcy law (different chapters, existing and proposed); minutiae of PR governmental policies and procedures; complex interplay between PR and the US Congress; PR electoral politics; debt negotiation strategies).

How will we make this situation better?

  • We will contextualize stories by pulling together the important–and correct–pieces of information.
  • We will explain how and why Puerto Rico is so complex, and is so different from the mainland US.
  • We will politely refute sloppy and incorrect reporting.
  • We will remain open to criticism, and will correct ourselves when we’re wrong.
  • We will respect differences of informed opinions.
  • We will have long conversations–probably via podcasts–with experts to explore important topics.
  • We will engage with our readers to find out what questions they want answered.

We don’t know exactly how this project will play out. So we will start the conversation and see where it takes us.

Thanks for joining us.