In the wake of Hurricane Maria, various campus organizations have mobilized against Yale’s holdings in mutual funds that hold Puerto Rican bonds. While I agree with some of their points, there have been a few misjudgments, misjudgments preventing us from having a productive conversation about Yale’s involvement in Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.
A common argument is that the Junta, a board created by the U.S. government to oversee debt restructuring, is inherently undemocratic. This is true. Many Puerto Ricans living on the island, like myself, had no say in the establishment of the act that established this board, nor in the exclusion of the island from federal bankruptcy laws. Yet, there is a reason why the act received bipartisan support. For years, the island’s democratically elected government shirked its constitutional responsibility: running a fiscally sound operation. Accruing an unpayable debt through the creation of monumental, government-funded projects, for instance, is one way that democratically chosen leaders on the island have failed us. Moreover, their role in shrinking the local economy and encouraging the creation of a welfare state have crippled our ability to create a sustainable society.
When the Junta calls for cuts to government spending, it is because the spending is either irresponsible or outright absurd. Just this week, the island’s legislature passed a law to raise pensions for mayors without any debate. Not teachers, policemen or first responders — mayors, who are already well-paid and have substantial pensions. Thankfully, the Junta and the governor prevented this from happening Consider this alongside the untenable health care system, another institution that continues to be broken and ineffective. Undemocratic institutions were put in place because democratic ones have failed the people,and are unfortunately necessary until a new brand of political leadership arises.
A recent op-ed pointed out that “[m]any believe that this debt was illegally created by the United States through a combination of exploitative business tax laws and the systematic exclusion of Puerto Ricans from the political body that passes these laws.” This is false. The debt was created by the Puerto Rican government in defiance of the Constitution of 1952. Few people seriously believe that the U.S. created this debt. Moreover, the characterization of “exploitative business tax laws” is uncharitable. Section 936 of the Internal Revenue Code, alongside other tax benefits, attracted companies to the island, creating a massive amount of jobs. While some of the companies’ practices were not in the island’s best interest, there is no doubt that these practices turned Puerto Rico into a vibrant economy during the last quarter of the 20th century. The fault, again, did not rest with Washington colonial overlords. Rather, it rested with shortsighted leadership that failed to create the conditions for a local capital class to exist.
There is a strong sentiment that Yale’s investment in Puerto Rican debt is harming Puerto Ricans and Puerto Rican students. I, like many other students who were born and raised on the island, agree that the University could better invest in various initiatives to improve the lives of Puerto Ricans on the island. Yet, to say that Yale contributes to my systematic oppression is false.
I am not blind to my plight, nor to that of the rest of my people. However, it’s important to acknowledge that Yale has opened its doors to Puerto Ricans for years. Yale has been the center for the development of many distinguished Puerto Ricans for decades — from prominent scientists and physicians to lawyers and leaders — and Yale has a rich tradition of empowering Puerto Ricans. I believe that the best way for Yale to continue this tradition is not through divestment, but through positive action.
What does that look like? First, Yale can accept more students from the island, offering traditions and resources to students committed to bettering their country. Second, Yale can create an initiative, dedicating resources to studying the island, crafting concrete proposals based on careful study of different economic, historical and political trends. This initiative has already been discussed with Yale administrators at length and could greatly help the island in a practical way. The initiative could work hand in hand with people, organizations and companies on the island to help it develop a self-sufficient society, emphasizing practical solutions created by undergraduates, graduate students and faculty.
So, let us build a future for the island together. Let us engage thoughtfully with this issue, so that we can truly help Puerto Rico in its time of need, continuing to open doors to the people living in the last colony.
Christian Wolpert Gaztambide is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .