Puerto Rico's Economic Crisis for MSNBC
For the past 8 years the island of Puerto Rico has faced a worsening recession with far reaching consequences. Puerto Rico’s economic crisis has hit both individuals and communities hard – shuttering small businesses throughout the island and provoking a mainland migration reminiscent of the great migration during the 1950s. The island has a 14.1 percent unemployment rate, which is more than double the national average, and a 45 percent poverty rate – a stark comparison to the poorest US state of Mississippi, which has a poverty rate of 23 percent.
Puerto Rico has been an unincorporated US territory for the past 117 years, residing in a void somewhere between statehood and independence. With a population of nearly 3.5 million US citizens - which is larger than 21 US states - Puerto Rico’s population does not have equal voting rights or representation in the senate. Even after a 2012 referendum where more than half of the population voted to join the union as the 51st state, statehood continues to be a contested issue for Puerto Ricans. For some the statehood direction is a chief component in addressing the islands social and economic problems, for others it would seriously jeopardize Puerto Rican cultural identity and self-determination.
Issues related to the economic crisis reverberate throughout the island. Behind the façade of a Caribbean paradise exists people facing tough prospects. Poverty in Puerto Rico is endemic with an estimated 60 percent of children and 39 percent of the elderly living below the line. Homelessness was once an issue mainly related to substance abusers but has worsened and now accounts for individuals facing economic related problems as well. The education system has weakened with schools closing and an 18 percent dropout rate. Jobs are scarce, mainly offering only part-time work and in some regions of the island the unemployment rate is nearly 50 percent.
Puerto Rico’s economic woes are having far reaching implications and the islands citizens are those most affected. With economic activity on the island at a 20-year low, a population decline, abject poverty, a high unemployment rate and budgetary cuts affecting government and utilities – Puerto Ricans are facing a very uncertain future.
A baseball field erected on land part of Fideicomiso de la Tierra del Caño Martín Peña - a community land trust encompassing over 194 acres in the heart of the San Juan Metropolitan Area. Community volunteers from Barrio Obrero rescued the land and temporally use it as a baseball field before new housing units will go up to relocate families whose homes will be removed to dredge the El Caño Martín Peña.
Pascual Mulero and Tomasa Machuca sit in the home they have lived in for over 50 years along El Caño Martín Peña. El Caño Martín Peña is a section of San Juan home to an estimated 25,000 residents - the majority descendants of impoverished squatters who migrated to San Juan during the first half of the 20th Century. Longtime residents of communities along the channel have banded together to form a communal land ownership agreement - restricting the government and corporations from taking over land and forcing residents out. The communities along with Corporation ENLACE have been fighting to have the US Corps of Engineers dredge the channel in order to improve living conditions.
Young boxers prepare to spar at a small gym in the Israel y Bitumul section of San Juan. Boxing is a major sport in Puerto Rico and almost every town has at least one gym aimed at active youth participation.
Art teacher Zaidy Volmar Claudio stands with her sister Lady Volmar Claudio on their rooftop trampoline. Zaidy and Lady live in the Buena Vista community of San Juan. Buena Vista is one of eight communities boarding El Caño Martín Peña that created the Fideicomiso del Caño Martín Peña land trust, resolving problems with land tenure dating back to the 1930s while averting gentrification after some residents were evicted by outside land developers and moved into public housing projects.
A political poster for San Juan mayoral candidate Miguel Romero hangs riddled with bullet holes above a music concert poster, San Juan
Raphel Ocasio tends to a community garden in the Barrio Obrero section of San Juan. Community organizations such as Corporation Proyecto ENLACE del Caño Martín Peña have been working with local volunteers to develop urban gardens around San Juan - educating residents about gardening and fostering community interaction.
A customer at a market in the Israel y Bitumul section of San Juan.
A wall in Barrio Obrero, San Juan
Nixon Morales Rosado, a resident of Barrio Obrero, holds baby Derrick Jacob on their front stoop, San Juan
A view down the street where the Ponce Massacre occurred on Palm Sunday in 1937. The Ponce Massacre took place when a march organized by the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party turned violent when police under the command of Governor Blanton Winship were ordered to stop the march. The heavily armed police opened fire onto the crowd killing 21 and injuring over 200 unarmed people. The march was formed to protest the imprisonment of the Nationalist Party's leader Pedro Albizu Campos as well as to commemorate the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico.
Pedro Orsini Mendez rests with his daughter at their home in the Tres Hermanos community near Aguada. At 104 years old, Pedro talks about his past as an artisan and sugarcane field worker.
Puerto Rico once had a thriving sugar industry second in output to Cuba during the 1930s - 1950's. Most sugar mills were owned by US companies and workers often lived in impoverished conditions. The industry began its decline in the 1950's due to Operation Bootstrap which planned to industrialize the island.
Currently the Agriculture Department is promoting a sugar cane growing revival project. The project is expected to grow 800,000 tons of sugarcane producing 20.5 million gallons of molasses worth $51 million.
A tree that was used as a lookout position by members of the Nationalist Party during the Jayuya Uprising in 1950. The revolt was one of multiple throughout the island stemming from the Nationalist Party's call for armed revolution against the United States. After the Nationalists had taken over the town - raising the Puerto Rican Flag in the town square and declaring Puerto Rico a free Republic - the Puerto Rican national guard attacked with planes, mortars and land artillery. The attack on Jayuya remains the only time in history that the United States arial bombed its own territory.
The town graveyard above Jayuya where Nationalist Party members Carlos Irizarry, Griselio Torresola and Blanca Canales are buried. Griselio Torresola was one of two Puerto Rican nationalists who attempted to assassinate President Harry Truman on November 1, 1950 in order to gain attention for the Puerto Rican independence movement. Griselio along with other Nationalist Party members believed Puerto Rico was a colony of the United States, a sentiment shared today by many residents of the island.
Kimberly Lopez Toro rides in the back of her husbands pickup truck through farmland near their home in the Lajas Valley. During the past 100 years agriculture in Puerto Rico has dropped from 71% of the islands GDP in 1914 to 1% in 2014. A reinvestment in local agriculture is essential to lowering food import costs and is capable of generating 90% of the populations food consumption as well as creating new jobs in regions of the island with high unemployment and poverty.
The backyard view of the Acosta farm in the Lajas Valley. Its estimated that a reinvestment in local agriculture could replace 90% of Puerto Rico's imports adding nearly $7 billion a year in locally produced food sales. This would greatly benefit Puerto Rico's long term economic recovery plan.
Diego plays on a farmland fence near his home in the Lajas Valley
Comunidad del Sol - once vacant land on the outskirts of Ponce - is now home to families who needed a safe and affordable community to live in. Residents of the community came together and took over the land building their homes from found materials.
Jose Rodriguez stands outside of his home in Comunidad del Sol, Ponce. Jose travels weekly to a construction job he found in the center of the island. It was the only work he could find as full time jobs are scarce throughout Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico's unemployment rate is 15 percent with some areas of the island facing nearly 50 percent unemployment.
A tree with prayers carved into it, Comunidad del Sol, Ponce
Residents of Comunidad del Sol meet together at the end of the day to discuss community matters, Ponce
Photographs of Yanira Rodriguez's brothers hang on their living room wall. One of her brothers was a victim of gun violence in the city of Ponce. In 2014 Puerto Rico saw a 40 percent drop in homicides since a record high of 1,164 in 2011. Puerto Rico still battles with gun violence around the island mainly related to territorial disputes between drug trafficking operations. Comunidad del Sol, Ponce
Jenny Estrada runs her husband's market as her son sleeps, Buena Vista, San Juan
Fernando, Barrio Obrero, San Juan
Details of a Market, San Juan
Felo Colón Guerra, a community leader and long time resident of Barrio Obrero, works for the G-8 community organization. The G-8 is made up of twelve grassroots organizations from eight communities adjacent to the Martín Peña Channel. The groups work together in the decision making processes associated with the Corporación del Proyecto ENLACE del Caño Martín Peña and community land trust. The G-8 was born as a result of the most extensive and comprehensive city planning process ever conducted in Puerto Rico.
A Street Corner in Aguadilla
Orlando Gonzales, a community leader and champion boxer, sits with his sister Samantha in their bedroom in Aguadilla. They live in a section of Aguadilla city which has been totally abandoned by the local municipality. Residents manage their own community services such as the water and sewage systems.
Kite Festival, Aguadilla
Jesus Lebron, a lifelong resident of Aguadilla
Children swim during a very hot day in Aguadilla. Local residents consider the canal's water to be special as its origins remain unknown.
Paul shows off his race horse, Buena Vista, San Juan
An assortment of memories and gifts from friends in Maria Helena Martinez's home, El Papayo, Lajas
Emelindo Aviles sits on the beach during sunset in El Papayo, Lajas