Puerto Rico’s religious leaders have called for debt relief in the face of the $72 billion financial crisis burdening the Caribbean US territory.
At a press conference in San Juan, leaders of the principle religious groups laid out six principles to resolve the crisis. In a statement, the clergy called on the United States Federal Reserve to intervene if Congress fails to pass bankruptcy protection to the financially strapped island.
Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro García Padilla said in June that the island’s debt was “unpayable” and that he plans to release a new adjustment plan later in the week.
“This debt crisis threatens to push more of our people into poverty and put people out of work,” said San Juan Archbishop Roberto González Nieves, leader of Puerto Rico’s mostly Catholic population. “The religious community stands with vulnerable people and we call for the crisis to be resolved in a way that protects the poor and grows our economy.”
Two recent reports, one commissioned by a group of hedge funds who purchased the island’s distressed debt and the other authorized by Puerto Rico’s own government, suggest new austerity plans to pay off portions of the debt.
The dueling reports note a range of “fiscal adjustments” including reducing the minimum wage, education resources and healthcare costs. One of the principles promoted by the coalition of religious leaders is that any resolution to the financial crisis prevents further austerity plans.
“As religious leaders, we see how desperate the situation is for Puerto Rico’s people,” said Reverend Heriberto Martínez Rivera, the Secretary General of Puerto Rico’s Biblical Society and the leader of the religious coalition confronting the debt crisis. “Too many of our people are already suffering from austerity policies and many brothers and sisters have left for the United States hungry for work and a better quality of life.”
Beyond calling for debt relief and criticizing austerity policies, the religious leaders’ statement asserts the need for greater Puerto Rican budget transparency and participation in future debt negotiations by people negatively affected by the crisis. The leaders described an urgency to speak because of the Biblical concept of debt relief or of Jubilee. Religious congregations will read the statement at worship services over the next week.
“Puerto Rico’s religious leaders are fighting for the lives of their people,” stated Eric LeCompte, the executive director of the faith-based development coalition Jubilee USA Network. LeCompte visited Puerto Rico in mid-August to advise religious and political leaders on solutions to the crisis. “We need to get Puerto Rico’s debt back to sustainable levels and ensure that the island has a path for economic growth.”
Some of the hedge funds, arguing for cuts in Puerto Rico’s economic growth, were or are currently involved in debt disputes in Greece, Argentina and Detroit, Michigan. The religious leaders raise concern over predatory hedge fund activity in their statement released on Monday.
Beyond the Catholic Church, other religious groups signing the statement include Methodists, Lutherans, Evangelicals, Pentecostals and the Disciples.