Puerto Rican Youth Fight For Their Home As Congress Prepares To Act

From internship programs to student strikes, young people are making change on their own terms.

GUILLERMO GUASP PEREZ Guillermo Guasp Perez of the University of Puerto Rico met with Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) in April. Guasp Perez is unhappy with the legislation underway to help the island.

GUILLERMO GUASP PEREZ
Guillermo Guasp Perez of the University of Puerto Rico met with Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) in April. Guasp Perez is unhappy with the legislation underway to help the island.

Daniel Marans Reporter, Huffington Post – Many Puerto Rican activists have tired of waiting for help from the U.S. Congress. And now that legislation is advancing to help the commonwealth deal with its debt crisis, they worry that fixing the problem will not be worth the accompanying loss of financial sovereignty.

To effect change on their own, some of the island’s young people are marshaling scant resources to address social ills and shape Puerto Rico’s future.

Alejandro Silva Diaz, 28, leads the nonprofit Mentes Puertorriqueñas en Acción, or “Puerto Rican Minds in Action.” The organization, founded in 2007, aims to fill what Silva Diaz calls a “leadership gap” by making the country’s future political and business elite more attuned to the challenges facing ordinary and underprivileged Puerto Ricans.

“A lot of Puerto Rican leaders have read and heard about social problems, but do not know about them firsthand,” Silva Diaz said.

Mentes Puertorriqueñas focuses on finding internships for college students as a way of encouraging bright, socially conscious young people to stay on the island instead of moving to the mainland United States.

“We noticed that students who study abroad in the U.S. want to come back, but their friends, colleagues and network are based outside Puerto Rico,” Silva Diaz said. “Through the internship program, they have a network through which they can start.”

Jobs for young people are in short supply on the island, as a result of Puerto Rico’s decade-long economic slump. Those that are available often come through internships that pay little if any money, creating a barrier to a steady career path for students who cannot afford to work for no pay.

“Puerto Rico’s crime rate is pretty high,” Silva Diaz said. “A lot of young people are choosing to get involved in the black market.”

Mentes Puertorriqueñas, which receives funding from a number of Puerto Rican foundations, matches students with internships in the private sector that pay at least minimum wage, and nonprofits that typically at least pay stipends. The group typically makes 30 internship placements per year, but expects to make 40 this year, which would bring its grand total to 180 since it began the internship program.

How did Puerto Rico get into this mess in the first place? Successive Puerto Rican governments relied on borrowing to defer difficult budgetary choices. Wall Street played its part by eagerly granting the island risky loans.

Analysts who are sympathetic to Puerto Rico’s predicament note that its in-between status as a U.S. commonwealth has made the current crisis harder to avoid. The island is saddled with many of the costs associated with being one of the 50 mainland states, while enjoying few of the states’ freedoms — including the power to extend bankruptcy authority to distressed municipalities.

Puerto Rico insists that it needs to restructure its debts if it is ever to emerge from a fiscal crisis that has forced it to adopt crippling austerity measures. The island’s steep spending cuts and tax increases have sparked a steep deterioration in living standards and a mass exodus.

Silva Diaz is worried that the additional austerity measures in impending Congressional legislation offering Puerto Rico limited debt relief will ultimately make the situation worse. A draft of a House bill would allow Puerto Rico’s governor to lower the minimum wage to $4.25 an hour for Puerto Ricans under 25. The island’s current minimum wage is the same as the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

If the governor acted on the proposed new powers, Silva Diaz believes it would “create an incentive” for more young people to leave the island or enter the underground job market.

Silva Diaz said he and many of his peers find the current crisis especially frustrating because they view it as the result of decisions made by decades of leaders they did not elect. The prospect of a Washington-based fiscal board with the power to dictate budget choices — a key element of the congressional aid bill that is almost certain to remain in the final legislation — adds insult to generational injury, according to Silva Diaz.

“The fiscal board they are proposing would reduce our democratic aspirations,” Silva Diaz said.

Millennial Puerto Ricans “would have to pay for the debt,” he added. “Plus, we are not going to be able to be involved in the decision-making to get out of the crisis.”

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