GLOBAL ECONOMY

While Puerto Rico sinks in debt, residents flee in record numbers to the U.S.

Puerto Rico is losing its people. Whole families are leaving. “Se Vende” or “For Sale” signs are everywhere. Jet Blue and American Airlines are breaking records in one-way departure flights to Miami and New York. 

According to a recent Pew Report, Puerto Ricans are abandoning the besieged island for the United States in numbers that rival those seen during the Great Migration after World War II, when Puerto Rico exported almost half of its population to the mainland.

The report estimated that between 2000 and 2013, the island’s population decreased by more than 200,000 people, the first sustained population decline and outmigration since becoming a territory of the U.S.

The festering colonial status, a crumbling economy, a government $72 billion in debt with a deficit of $3.6 million, an 11.5 percent sales tax and a soaring crime rate are fueling this present-day diaspora.

The situation became worse this week when Puerto Rico’s governor, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, announced via an interview with The New York Times that the debt was “not payable,” plummeting the island’s bonds.

But the main reason Puerto Ricans are leaving: an unemployment rate of almost 15 percent. Jobs on the island are virtually hard to find.

Fortaleza, the commonwealth’s government, did not respond to several requests seeking comment.

“The modern diaspora, in my opinion, is the desperate departure of the professional class from the island because they can’t find a job,” said Jabneel Diaz Rivera, 36, a television producer that left the island for Miami two years ago.

She said even people with jobs are second-guessing things like whether they should turn on the air conditioner at night because they worry whether they can pay their electric bill.

Carla Minet, director of Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, described this diaspora as the new normal.

There are so many people leaving the island, in fact, that there are now more Puerto Ricans living on the mainland than on the island itself.

“As of now, I do not visualize returning to live in Puerto Rico. I have visited twice since I moved away and sincerely, I see no progress,” said Meryland Cuevas, 40, a motivational speaker and life coach. “In my last visit, I felt like I was visiting a picturesque print that was stuck in time. The places close to where I lived in Santurce, they were the same as when I left them, the same decadence.”

“We constantly see how professionals and young, productive people of the island leave unfinished dreams behind to start anew in the ‘Land of the Free’.”

Manny Suarez, 57, a lawyer who still lives in Puerto Rico, said there have been no riots on the island like you see on the streets of Spain or Greece, two countries that have seen bankruptcy on the face. He said that’s because of the island’s easy access to the mainland.

“…Puerto Ricans can get on a plane and leave the island for the United States. In this pressure cooker, that is the safety valve,” he said.

Many people, he said, have packed up their stuff and moved their life to the U.S. “If that were not a possibility, we would be looking at a full-fledged revolution,” he said.

Yet, leaving is not always the panacea that many Puerto Ricans hoped it would be.

“Many think that you make a fortune outside of Puerto Rico, but this is not true. It has been difficult for me,” said Diaz Rivera, the TV producer now living in Miami. “I have had to ration what I eat. But I have a job, which I didn’t have in Puerto Rico.”

Susanne Ramirez de Arellano is a freelance writer based in New York City. She is a former News Director for Univision Puerto Rico and has worked for ABC News, the Associated Press Television News in London and CNN International. She writes a Blog for www.magacin.com called Susanne en la Ciudad.

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