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Calamity in Puerto Rico has families worried here


Puerto Rico is teetering on the edge of a Greece-style financial calamity. The US territory defaulted on its debt payment earlier this month, failing to pay $174 million on the roughly $72 billion it owes lenders. And Rochester's large Puerto Rican community is extremely concerned; many have family members living on the island.

Thousands of people are fleeing Puerto Rico, says Hilda Rosario Escher, president and CEO of the Ibero American Action League, and coming to places such as Rochester where they have family. They often arrive with language barriers that prevent them from finding jobs, she says.

"We have 40 families taking English classes here, 40 families on the waiting list, and every day we get more calls," she says. "We're doing everything we can to help."

Puerto Rico's economic problems are complex, Escher says. In the 1980's and 1990's, the island attracted a lot of medical and pharmaceutical companies, she says, which provided good-paying manufacturing jobs. But as their tax exemptions faded, she says, many of those companies pulled out.

Unemployment is high on the island, Escher says, and many young people, professionals, and members of the so-called creative class have either left or probably will leave for better opportunities.

"That means that about 70 percent of the people in Puerto Rico are retirees or people who are unable to work," Escher says. The middle class has shrunk and poverty has increased, causing many families here to send money to relatives there.

"I'm an example of one of those people," she says. "I have a sister there that I help."

Many people picture a tropical paradise similar to Hawaii when they think of Puerto Rico, says activist Ana Casserly, but that's not the case. The medical system is inferior, she says, and tourism is floundering because of increasing concerns about drug-related violence.

She says that the problems in Puerto Rico that are driving migration north are becoming similar to those seen in Mexico and Central America.

Since it is a territory rather than a state, Puerto Rico can't use the US bankruptcy laws in the same way as Detroit without help from Congress. And much of Puerto Rico's debt is in the form of municipal bonds. If that debt is wiped clean, a lot of US investors would take a big hit.

Still, Escher and Latino community leaders from around the state and in New York City are urging members of Congress to do something. And they tell residents in their communities to do the same.

"I tell people every day that the most important thing they can do is register to vote and on Election Day you must get out there and vote," Escher says. "The strange thing is that 85 percent of the people living in Puerto Rico vote. But they get here and for some reason, they don't. Your vote is your power."