Puerto Rico gov says there are other ways to be heard

Amid massive protest for his ouster; feds warn against violence

SAN JUAN — In a statement issued after thousands of people attempted to get as close as possible to his office and residence to condemn messages he shared with his inner circle on a messaging app, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló mentioned his acknowledgment of the demonstration but focused on those who reacted to police force protocol.

“The demonstrations that have arisen tonight are an expression that I respect and I have very much in mind. Unfortunately, despite the responsible call for a peaceful demonstration by many of the participants, many others chose to damage property and assault officials who sought to preserve public order in defense of the security and rights of all,” Rosselló wrote Monday evening.

“My gratitude goes to all those who made their claims heard, as well as to the officers of the Puerto Rico Police Bureau, who once again were at the forefront of this sad situation. I direct my call to those who have shown their anger in a violent way so that they understand that there are many other ways to be heard and that as governor I am committed to doing,” he added.

After tear gas canisters began to fly back and forth between protesters and officers—who say these were first lodged at them, while Mariana Nogales of Brigada Solidaria legal services told Telemundo TV that she and three other monitors witnessed otherwise—friction intensified to the point that law enforcement expanded its security perimeter as waves of activists tried to breach the break wall to no avail.

The security forces used pepper spray and tear gas to disperse the crowd as some would fight back with whatever was around them, even setting trash bins on fire. Five people reportedly were arrested. The number of civilian injuries was unclear, while the police said 21 officers were injured.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Drug Enforcement Administration are working with the island’s law enforcement to investigate “the violent acts” that transpired in Old San Juan, the Justice Department said in a release.

“We emphasize that peaceful demonstrations are an exercise of the fundamental rights of citizens, but violent acts and destruction of property have no part of a peaceful demonstration, and will not to be tolerated. We are disheartened by the violence that some groups have taken and we will investigate and prosecute anyone who has violated federal law, to the fullest extent of the law,” said Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, U.S. Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico. “We remain vigilant in monitoring the situation and will act immediately, as we have done in other situations when peaceful demonstrations have turned violent.”

“The FBI recognizes the public’s first amendment right to protest in a peaceful manner. Nonetheless, the FBI will actively investigate any acts of violence that fall under our jurisdiction and constitute federal crimes in coordination with our law enforcement partners and the US Attorney’s office,” added Douglas A. Leff, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI.




While Puerto Rico Senate majority leader calls gov’s change of venue for budget address symbolic, minority lawmakers won’t attend

(Screen capture of https://complejoferialpr.com/)

Message to be delivered Sunday in Ponce convention center, rather than San Juan Capitol

SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico Senate Majority Leader Carmelo Ríos defended Tuesday Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s decision to break with tradition and deliver his annual budget speech Sunday from Ponce, instead of the Capitol.

“From a political point of view, the governor will be giving an address to the people regarding the path the government is taking,” Ríos said in an interview with Radio Isla. “For me, it’s a powerful message that not everything is in San Juan, that there are also other places in which we can move, and that also conveys that it’s a symbolic message, that this is a government that adjusts.”

Ríos said the speech people are expecting to hear is along the lines of, “This money is going to arrive. How are you going to use it? What’s the plan? What can I expect this year from the government, from the legislature, from the governor? All of those issues will be combined in the address.”

He said the address will include some political topics, “but with numbers.”

“The address also serves to speak to the people about our government’s priorities, such as in health; this needs to be addressed, these are the numbers,” he said. “In education issues, these are the expenses we have to address.”

The New Progressive Party lawmaker said the message is meant for the people.

“The address has to be accompanied with numbers, the address has to be accompanied with real projections. The governor has the obligation to say, look, in healthcare we have these needs and we have this plan that costs so much, and here is the item; in education, we have so many schools, and this is our priority and it costs this much,” Ríos said.

Meanwhile, former Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá also spoke about the governor’s upcoming speech in his show, “ Sobre La Mesa,” which airs on Radio Isla.

The former governor said the salary increases Puerto Rico’s Financial Oversight and Management Board is proposing for teachers and police is the same the governor is proposing. He said there was no difference between them regarding the proposed public employee pension cuts either because the ones required by the board will not be reflected until the fiscal year 2021 budget.

He further stressed that the board is proposing a higher budget than the current one of $8.7 billion, sending a $9.05 billion budget to the legislature last week.

“This Sunday, what will take place is a symbolic budget address, definitely,” Acevedo Vilá said.

Popular Democratic Party Sen. Eduardo Bhatia said minority lawmakers will not be attending the governor’s speech Sunday.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) Rep. Denis Márquez criticized the governor’s decision to speak about the budget in Ponce.

“The governor’s determination of transferring the budget address to Ponce confirms that this is not about a budget address, but a political campaign address,” Márquez said in a statement. “The governor knows that the past budget was the one imposed by the board and so he decided to move the place where he will give his address and invents, together with the House of Representatives, summoning a Total Committee.”

Rosselló announced Monday that he would be delivering his annual budget address at the Complejo Ferial de Puerto Rico convention center in Ponce.

His address will be delivered at 5:15 p.m. and will be broadcast on WIPR Channel 6 and WIPR Radio 940 AM. The address will also be available through the governor’s Facebook account, https://www.facebook.com/rrossello/.




Puerto Rico gov says he will do whatever it takes to avoid cutting pensions

(Cybernews)

Urges fiscal board to evaluate budget he already submitted to legislature

ARECIBO, Puerto Rico — Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares said Wednesday that he will protect his right to implement public policy to avoid cutting the pensions of public employees established by the fiscal oversight board.

“Because they try to impose public policy by carrying out their initiatives based on the budget. I invite the board to evaluate the budget that we will be submitting and that we have already submitted to the Legislative Assembly,” Rosselló Nevares said in a press conference.

“We are going to take them to the last consequences and to all the forums,” he added.

Rosselló Nevares said that if there are no agreements on the budget, “the rules of the game change a bit.”

“I don’t believe that if we want to make changes and transformations, if we want to implement things like the Earned Income Tax Credit that they themselves made viable, then we will be on a budget from last year and implement it. The solution is easy, that they do their work. They have determined that there is a cap, great. And we are going to determine with the Legislative Assembly where that capital is invested, and we hope, once again, that those wishes will be respected but if not, we will be using the resources we have at our disposal,” he concluded.

The governor made the remarks after enacting the Mitigation, Adaptation and Resilience to Climate Change Act of Puerto Rico, which establishes a public policy with goals, metrics and dates of compliance to address the global variation of climate.




Puerto Rico fiscal board says only it can propose ‘what recovery pensioners will receive’

(Screen capture of WIPR)

‘Hitting pensioners is, in addition to unfair, a bad fiscal policy,’ Rosselló says while staunchly defending his administration’s actions

SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares broadcast a live TV message to the island Thursday in which he criticized the island’s Financial Oversight and Management Board.

The 2019 fiscal plan, the third certified by the board in two years, reflects more conservative projections; retains the requirement to eliminate the statutory Christmas bonus, which the government said it will pay nonetheless; sets employers’ contribution to health insurance at $125; and requires the government to document and include in its budget how much the tax credits and preferential agreements it grants to companies and individuals cost the Treasury.

The plan also cuts public workers’ pensions by 10 percent, except for those under the federal poverty threshold.

“People are facing an unfair and unnecessary threat from the Puerto Rico Financial Oversight and Management Board,” the governor said in his speech, while stressing that the cuts to public worker pensions proposed by the island’s fiscal oversight board was a “blow” that would cause a “social crisis with serious repercussions” on trade and the economy.

“Attacking the most vulnerable while the cost of living increases would have the effect of the Government having to assist that population. The cuts proposed by the Board do not make sense. It constitutes an attack on everyone in Puerto Rico,” the governor said.

The board’s actions, such as changing and rejecting fiscal plans, related to measures he said were lifting Puerto Rico up, would result in a “paralyzed government.”

“The Oversight Board does not want to cut pensions,” it said in a statement Friday. “Fiscal and legal constraints on Puerto Rico force the Oversight Board to reform pensions, not ideology.”

The board said that “Decades of financial mismanagement, underfunding, and borrowing from people’s pensions have left the retirement systems for the central government, teachers, and judges with virtually no money. Had the Commonwealth not started paying for pensions out of the general operating budget, pensioners would have stopped receiving pension checks by now. But that means the Commonwealth general operating budget has to find the money to pay pensions, which cost roughly $2.5 billion a year.”

Saying that in “the past, governments simply raided the retirement systems and borrowed from creditors to find the money to pay pensions,” the board stressed that the “retirement systems are effectively broke and the Government cannot borrow money.”

The board does not doubt “the Governor’s sincere desire to pay pensions in full, now and forever,” the panel said, “but the unfortunate reality is that the Commonwealth does not have the money to do so.”

The “pension reform policy,” the panel said it is forced to implement, “reduces the cost of pensions by over $10 billion over the next 30 years to make pensions affordable and sustainable for the Commonwealth,” and that with the other reforms in the fiscal plan, “ensures that future governments will always have the resources to be able to pay pensions” and that”never again will pensioners be put in the position of doubting whether they will receive their hard-earned pension.”

The board also noted that under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act’s (Promesa) Title III process, “only the Oversight Board can propose what recovery pensioners will receive, not the Governor, but anything the Oversight Board proposes has to be approved by a court.”

The board further said “it cannot expect the court to allow pensions to be paid in full when the bondholders receive much less than what they are owed,” and for that reason it has “developed a pension reform policy that has been part of every Fiscal Plan since 2017 that produces an overall recovery of more than 90% to pensioners and tries to limit the cuts to those who are better able to afford it.”

However, the governor argued in his speech Thursday that just when “the signs of economic recovery are visible, that we have begun to receive important investments from the private sector in our island and the unemployment rate in Puerto Rico decreases, the board presents itself as an obstacle in the path of our people,” he said.

In his message, which lasted about 8 minutes, the governor called on “all sectors of society” to back the government’s actions against the cuts to pensioners, which he called “a totally unnecessary ideological obsession.”

He charged that his administration will take the matter to “all forums necessary” to argue board actions he called unjustifiable, and that he was not discarding legal action in defense of the pensioners.

The governor said the government has achieved some $1.4 billion in savings to pay pensions, making way to be able to allocate about $2.5 billion in all budgets to fully pay each public retiree and added that his administration’s has carried out “the largest cut that has been made to an operational budget in the modern history of the United States.”

“We have taken dramatic and unprecedented measures to stabilize the catastrophic state in which we found the public finances, preventing the total collapse of the economy in Puerto Rico,” Rosselló said. “On the contrary, from this critical situation, today we are in clear recovery, as evidenced by the main economic parameters.”

More than 70,000 retirees receive $1,000 or less a month in pension payments; more than 120,000 receive $2,000 a month or less, the governor noted.

“We can work with board toward a common objective: Rehabilitate the government’s finances and achieve stimulating Puerto Rico’s economy,” he added. “That is possible without having to impose on the people abusive measures that affect essential services and the quality of life of the people.”

The governor said the retired workers already “sacrificed enough” during the past administration.

“By 2017, the retirement systems had no funds to pay pensioners who, for decades, gave their body and soul to the public sector… That is why we adopted Act 106, so that the general fund would take care of complying with those who complied for Puerto Rico.”

Rosselló reiterated that his administration has taken “the measures needed to safeguard the pensions, being fiscally responsible,”  and concluded saying that the board’s actions were unnecessary and the panel “should finally understand that the public policy is the elected government’s responsibility.”

“You have granted me the privilege to serve you as your governor,” Rosselló further said. “Destiny confronts us with difficult and complex situations for Puerto Rico. Today I urge unity of purpose to defend our pensioners and continue the agenda of changes that will transform Puerto Rico. I will not be part of the suffering that thousands of Puerto Rican families would have with the cuts to their pensions.”

Earlier Thursday, Treasury Secretary Raúl Maldonado reportedly said the government would not be implementing 10 percent cuts to public worker pensions and will instead look for ways to cut down on spending, a move he said will bring about significant savings to avoid having to make pension cuts.

“We think that the alternative we are offering, that is to make cuts in professional services, consolidate agencies, is much more tangible, we can measure it more easily,” Maldonado said, adding that the government will continue fighting, and that he already has $2.4 billion budgeted to pay the pensions, “not only of the central government workers, but also municipal, including the Christmas bonus.”

Rossello’s speech was added Thursday morning to the governor’s daily agenda, but his office, La Fortaleza, did not disclose the subject matter until the message began to be broadcast.  

The full text of the governor’s message, as sent by La Fortaleza, follows:

Brothers and sisters of Puerto Rico,

Once again, the Financial Oversight and Management Board unfairly and unnecessarily threatens our people. On this occasion, again, the threat is against the pensioners of our public service, affecting over 170,000 of our retirees.

I want to begin my words by reiterating that I am opposed to this unjustified attack against an important sector of our population.

More than 70,000 retirees receive a pension of a thousand dollars or less a month. More than 120,000 receive two thousand dollars or less a month. Who can expect these pensioners to live with less? Many already have difficulties making arrangements to pay for their medicines, food, home, electricity, and water.

We must not forget that the previous administration already hurt our pensioners by eliminating payments for their medical insurance, by eliminating their Christmas bonus and summer benefits, and drastically reducing future retirees of their right to a fair retirement.

By 2017, the retirement systems did not have enough funds to pay the retirees who, for decades, worked tirelessly as public servants. That is why we approved Act No. 106, so that the general fund would be in charge of complying with those who complied with Puerto Rico.

The cuts to pensions proposed by the Board are unjustified. We have generated savings of $1.4 billion precisely to make pension payments.

These adjustments have allowed us to allocate about $2.5 billion for the total payment of each pension in all our budgets.

The savings that we have achieved in our Government constitute the largest cut that has been made to an operational budget in the modern history of the United States.

We have taken dramatic and unprecedented measures to stabilize the catastrophic state in which we found our public finances, avoiding the total collapse of the Puerto Rican economy. On the contrary, from this critical situation, today we are in clear recovery, as evidenced by the main economic parameters.

Now that our economy is clearly recovering; as we begin to receive important investments from the private sector in our Island; and while the unemployment rate in Puerto Rico decreases, the Board puts obstacles to our progress.

The erratic actions of the Board—changing and objecting to fiscal plans that are helping Puerto Rico recover—would only paralyze our government and harm the people.

We can work with the Board in a common goal: to restore the finances of the Government and to stimulate the Puerto Rican economy. This is possible without having to impose abusive measures that affect the essential services and the quality of life in our Island.

Given the savings and control spending we have implemented in the Government, the pension cuts that the Board intends to impose are an ideological obsession, totally unnecessary.

I repeat: We have already taken the necessary measures to save pensions, acting with fiscal responsibility. It is unnecessary. The Board must understand that public policy is the responsibility of the elected government of the People of Puerto Rico.

The effect of the proposed cut on pensions would cause a social crisis, with serious repercussions on trade and the economy.

Hitting pensioners is, in addition to unfair, bad fiscal policy. Attacking the most vulnerable while the cost of living increases would have the effect of the Government having to assist that population. The cuts proposed by the Board do not make sense. It constitutes an attack on everyone in Puerto Rico.

Facing the abuse of the Board to our people, I summon all sectors of our society, including political parties, to join me in defense of pensioners in Puerto Rico.

I will go to all necessary forums to demonstrate that this blow is unjustified. I do not rule out any action in defense of our pensioners.

In practically all Puerto Rican families there are retirees who gave their best days to Puerto Rico. We must defend them because it is the right thing to do.

You have granted me the privilege of serving as your governor. Fate confronts us with difficult and complex situations for Puerto Rico. Today, I ask unity of purpose from you, so that we defend our pensioners together and continue the agenda of changes that will transform Puerto Rico.

Injustice and abuse cannot be imposed on a noble and brave People, if they exercise their right to fair treatment with determination.

I will not be a participant in the suffering that thousands of Puerto Rican families would have with the pension cuts. Let us go together to give that battle!

May God bless Puerto Rico.

Good afternoon.




FEMA Gives Puerto Rico authority to disburse recovery funds

FEMA interim Director Mike Byrne and COR3 Executive Director Omar Marrero

Shows island is capable of managing its recovery with same seriousness as any state, official says

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the March 28 – April 3, 2019, issue of Caribbean Business.

Despite public differences between Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) over the management of public funds, the executive director of the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction & Resiliency (COR3), Omar Marrero, and FEMA’s interim director, Mike Byrne, announced an agreement that would transfer to the local government the responsibility of disbursing recovery funds.

Marrero said the agreement came after an intense effort by COR3 to work together with FEMA in the development and establishment of policies, fiscal procedures and internal controls to ensure compliance in the evaluation and approval of disbursements, also known as “Process 270.”

“Our goal is to obtain the disbursement of federal funds in an efficient and effective manner as possible with the goal of achieving progress and the vision of recovery established by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló,” indicated Marrero, who said the established methods and procedures to manage, internally control and hasten the disbursement of funds “will show that Puerto Rico is in a better position to manage its own recovery.”

The executive director of COR3 insisted the agreement shows the government of Puerto Rico is capable of managing its own recovery with the same seriousness and responsibility as any other state. Marrero indicated that control of the disbursement process is limited to funds managed by FEMA and not to other monies, such as Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds, which are administered by the federal Department of Housing.

Meanwhile, Byrne praised the local government’s ability to manage the funds and was pleased the island can finally move on to the next phase of its recovery.

“I think it is important to recognize that we have always been in sync in terms of wanting to make sure the tax dollars and grants that we are authorizing are used in the most responsible way. That has always been the case,” Byrne said. “What’s exciting about this juncture is that the capability is in place, the confidence is in place to have Puerto Rico manage that process and go forward.

“When you think about the scope and scale, we’ve been dealing with unprecedented amounts of money and will continue to do so going into the future. And it will be many, many years that Puerto Rico is going to be managing this process, and we have full faith and confidence that they are going to do the right thing and that we again, together, can stand and tell all the taxpayers in America that this money, it’s been spent properly and wisely,” Byrne said.

Experts hired

The officials said that to ensure the process is efficiently and transparently carried out, and with full protection and compliance with applicable federal regulations, COR3 hired experts to establish, in collaboration with FEMA, the necessary protocols to take over the task of managing FEMA funds. Marrero did not indicate how much of the contract is awarded for this function.

Asked what could have caused the White House’s and certain sectors of Congress to change their position—who had showed great skepticism in transferring the disbursement of recovery funds to the Rosselló administration after several scandals involving allegedly illegal contracts—Byrne said the establishment of new controls provides greater confidence.

“It’s not so much that anything has changed. What happened is that from the outset we, together, have put in place controls so we have a high degree of confidence that the money is being spent on what it was intended to be spent on,” Byrne said.

“These grants…are going to be rebuilding the infrastructure of the commonwealth, so there is nothing simple about it, or the work of these two agencies [FEMA and COR3],” he added. “We have a high degree of confidence now that the procedures we have in place will do exactly that, and we welcome any scrutiny of what they wanted in place.” Echoing Gov. Rosselló’s expression, Byrne added, “This is going to be the most transparent recovery in history.”

“There will be no tolerance, no suspicion of fraud, abuse, waste or negligence in the handling and disbursement of these federal funds,” Marrero assured, since the COR3 office has established a confidential line as an independent and impartial mechanism to report any illegal act regarding these funds. People wishing to make a report can call, free of charge and in total confidentiality, 1-888-876-7548 or access transparencypr.ethicsglobal.com.

The announcement to transfer responsibilities came only weeks after former Revitalization Coordinator Noel Zamot made serious allegations involving the supposed illegal manipulation in the evaluation of multimillion-dollar investment projects under Title V of Promesa Act.




Rationing ordered for Puerto Rico towns served by Guajataca reservoir

SAN JUAN – Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares announced Monday morning, along with several agency heads, water control and rationing plans that will be carried out for customers who are supplied from the Guajataca reservoir, given below-normal rainfall in the past few months.

Due to the drought Puerto Rico is facing, a release from the governor’s office said, a rationing plan that includes service interruptions will be implemented “in coordination with the mayors” of half a dozen municipalities, or some 220,000 people.

“For the Government, it is important that our people enjoy drinking water service with the greatest possible continuity. This is why we will take action now to make operational adjustments to the Guajataca reservoir and thus avoid that the situation worsens,” the governor said, adding that, “with the collaboration of the pertinent agencies and the help of the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the work will be completed as soon as possible.”

The governor’s office release cites the most recent data from the U.S. Drought Monitor, saying 46 municipalities have been “abnormally dry” and another 15 face “moderate drought.”

Abnormally dry areas are not in drought but are experiencing conditions such as short-term dryness–slowing planting and the growth of crops or pastures–that could turn into drought; or lingering water deficits and pastures or crops that have not fully recovered when coming out of drought.

Moderate drought includes a dry period that represents where there can be some damage to crops and pastures, as well as low streams, reservoirs or wells and some water shortages are developing or imminent, where voluntary water-use restrictions are requested, according to the U.S. Water Monitor.

The executive president of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (Prasa), Elí Díaz Atienza, explained that starting Feb. 20 service will be “alternated” between the municipalities of Aguadilla, Aguada, Camuy, Isabela, Moca, Quebradillas and the Puntas de Rincón barrio, with some areas resulting in suspended service for 24 hours at a time, according to the Associated Press.

Díaz Atienza added that “after the passage of Hurricane Maria, the [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers has been carrying out work to remedy the damage sustained by the Guajataca reservoir. However, with the forecast of little precipitation–and despite the adjustments and the reduction of significant extractions that Prasa has made to avoid that the service of subscribers is affected–the levels the reservoir reflect today require that these adjustments be made operational.”

The executive director of Prasa, José Ortiz Vázquez, said that according to Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) and USACE projections, the work on the Guajataca reservoir is expected to conclude in May.

“In collaboration with the Corps of Engineers, we hope the work is completed quickly,” Ortiz Vázquez said, adding that if “carried out responsibly and effectively…the lake will be able to return to 194 meters and store more water for the benefit of the affected customers.”

In the governor’s office release, the secretary of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER), Tania Vázquez Rivera, explained that “the projection of the members of the scientific committee is there will not be a significant precipitation event in the coming months and the rains of March will determine if the event worsens or improves.”

The mayor of Isabela, Carlos Delgado Altieri, of the minority Popular Democratic Party, blamed the lack of action by the island’s government and Usace, saying Prepa and its Irrigation Division, as well as Prasa, allowed Usace to continue extracting water from the reservoir to the Guajataca River, without anticipating that levels were falling quickly, close to a period of low rainfall and despite his repeated warnings.

The Carraízo, La Plata, Patillas, Carite, Río Blanco, Caonillas and Fajardo reservoirs are at safe levels; while the Cidra and Toa Vaca reservoirs on high observation.

Meanwhile, the executive director of the Central Office of Recovery and Reconstruction (COR3), Omar J. Marrero, said several water projects are underway, including “floating pumps and improvements to the water intakes of the Guajataca and Carraízo reservoirs; the intake of raw water; the expansion of the Culebrinas River; the removal of sediment from Lake Aguadilla; and dredging of the reservoirs of Patillas, La Plata and Dos Bocas, among others.”

“For us, it is a priority to work hand in hand with Prasa and the DNER in order to identify the priority projects in that sector and obtain the funds needed to execute them for the benefit of the People of Puerto Rico,” Marrero added.

For more information, visit Prasa’s website, www.acueductospr.com.




Puerto Rican gov, congresswoman decry use of recovery funds to build U.S. border wall

SAN JUAN – Doubling down on his election campaign theme that the United States must secure its border, President Trump was reportedly considering constructing a border wall using his authority to invoke a national emergency and utilizing funds earmarked by Congress for natural disaster recovery or preparedness.

Trump’s administration has vowed to ensure “the swift removal of unlawful entrants,” end “chain migration,” eliminate the Visa Lottery and “moving the country to a merit-based entry system,” according to the White House.

The impasse between Trump and congressional Democrats to fund government operations–partially halted for 20 days, one day short of the longest time on record–has left unpaid some 800,000 federal workers, of which an estimated 14,600 work in Puerto Rico.

“No wall should be funded on the pain and suffering of United States citizens who have endured tragedy and loss through a natural disaster. This includes those citizens that live in California, Texas, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and other jurisdictions. Today it’s us, tomorrow it could be you,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said in a statement Friday.

He further said: “No justification should be considered to reclassify the money that US citizens will use to rebuild their communities. If anything, the conversation should be about how we get more resources to rebuild those impacted areas faster.

“Since the reports are coming from unidentified sources, the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, should explicitly state his intent. Will he support the rebuild of Puerto Rico, California, Texas, US Virgin Islands, and others, or undermine it?

“This is a classic case of choosing between obstruction and construction. Which side are you on, President Trump?

“Mister President, don’t tear down US citizens to build a wall. Help the United States of America rebuild. It is the right thing to do.”

Trump reiterated Thursday that a wall is the “only [way] you’re going to have border security—there’s only way: You can have all the technology in the world. I’m a professional at technology. But if you don’t have a steel barrier or a wall of some kind—strong, powerful—you’re going to have human trafficking; you’re going to have drugs pouring across the border; you’re going to have MS-13 and the gangs coming in.”

Those assertions are debatable, as they have been found unsupported by data by several media and independent fact-checkers.

Regarding the use of assigned disaster response funds, he stressed he has “the absolute right to declare a national emergency. The lawyers have so advised me. I’m not prepared to do that yet. But if I have to, I will,” stressing, “This is a crisis,” as have echoed most members of his administration.

Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, Jenniffer González, who backs the president in erecting more barriers to enclose the nearly 2,000-mile border, railed against the funding alternative considered by Trump.

“The humanitarian crisis on the southern border of the United States, identified by both President Obama and President Trump, cannot be resolved by removing money approved for disaster mitigation in Puerto Rico at the expense of the poorest American citizens, [who are] treated with total inequality,” she said in a statement issued Friday.

She further added: “As a Resident Commissioner, I vehemently reject that game with our pain and hope. Congress approved and President Trump signed those assignments with an express purpose and Our People do not deserve that treatment.

“While the President has broad military authority, as Commander in Chief, when it comes to declaring a national emergency, it is unacceptable and I will not support the reallocation of funds, which we approved in a bipartisan effort in Congress for the recovery and reconstruction of Puerto Rico.

“We have not received the disbursement of funds [which she said is $2.5 billion] after more than a year has elapsed since the impact of Hurricane Maria and now using this as a political football is not what American citizens in Puerto Rico deserve.

“The lives of the residents of the island are still in danger and I will defend their safety and well-being. We must make sure we comply with the intention of Congress and use the money to rebuild a stronger and more resilient Puerto Rico.”




Growing Interest in Puerto Rico’s Cruiseship Docks

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Dec. 20, 2018 – Jan. 2, 2019, issue of Caribbean Business.

The 20- to 30-year public-private partnership (P3) that includes $360 million to $500 million in private capital investment and management of Puerto Rico’s cruiseship ports entered the final stage when Global Ports Holding, Puerto Rico Cruise Terminals Partners and San Juan Cruise Terminal Partners were announced as qualified consortiums for this full-concession agreement.

“Qualified bidders were notified and, on Nov. 30, were given access to the requests for proposal [RFPs]. It contains financial, technical and operational elements, among others. The RFP process lasts until March 2019,” said Ports Authority Director Anthony Maceira Zayas. Although he recognizes this concession will have a positive effect on the visitors’ economy, he could not provide an estimate of the economic impact they expect to obtain from this lucrative business.

“This figure will be known at the time of receiving the proposals. However, the estimated capital investment is over $300 million. This would be a combination of private investment and recovery funds,” said Maceira Zayas, who explained that he works hand in hand with the Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction & Resilience (known as COR3) to handle the arrival of millions of dollars to repair much of the Port’s system in Puerto Rico, which was battered after the passage of hurricanes Irma and Maria.

(Courtesy)

“To better manage the maritime transportation system as a whole and make ports more attractive to maritime businesses and investors, maritime industry experts’ input indicates the need for consolidating ownership and oversight of the [island’s] nine main ports,” reads both the draft and final version of “Transformation & Innovation in the Wake of Devastation: An Economic & Disaster-Recovery Plan for Puerto Rico,” the document that seeks $906 million in federal funds to repair ports in San Juan, Peñuelas, Guánica and Fajardo.

“The people of Puerto Rico are wonderful, but the inept politicians are trying to use the massive and ridiculously high amounts from hurricane / disaster funding to pay off other obligations. The U.S. will NOT bail out long-outstanding and unpaid obligations with hurricane-relief money,” tweeted President Donald J. Trump on Oct. 23.

Days later, Axios reported that White House officials have told congressional appropriators and leadership that the U.S. president does not want to give Puerto Rico any more federal money for its recovery from Hurricane Maria. “This is because he claims, without evidence, that the island’s government is using federal disaster-relief money to pay off debt,” said the story that was published Nov. 11 by Jonathan Swan. Maceira Zayas did not want to comment directly about these public assertions during his interview with Caribbean Business.

“The process of requesting recovery funds is a continuous one that we are working through COR3 on a daily basis. In addition, a few weeks ago, the executive director [Omar Marrero] was in [Washington] D.C. with the director of the P.R. Federal Affairs Administration, …Carlos Mercader discussing [among other subjects] the issue with port facilities,” he replied.

Last September, Maceira Zayas assured that his public corporation was “working on a legal process and mathematical formula, so once the federal funds begin to be received, the private entity may be able to function as a grant manager.” This way private investment is reduced and Ports’ income from the concession to manage the piers and surrounding areas is greater.

“The detail of the formula is part of the RFP that for the moment is only available to participants,” said the Ports director, who could not be precise about the amount of money received from the federal government, if any.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and President Donald Trump (Courtesy)

Redundancy from La Fortaleza?

Although the proposed P3 model is a full concession, which will provide the proponent that obtains the agreement absolute control over the cruiseship ports and their surroundings, the First Lady of Puerto Rico, Beatriz Rosselló, announced Oct. 5 a million-dollar investment to improve the appearance of the San Juan docks under La Fortaleza Es Para Ti program.

“We have one of the best tourist destinations in the Caribbean and, for the next high season, after the passage of Hurricane Maria, the dock area will be the launching point for tourism in Old San Juan. We are focused on improving the visitor experience and injecting life into the business. The lighting projects have already started thanks to an alliance with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and the Tourism Co.,” Rosselló explained in a press release.

Is this a process unlinked from the P3? Caribbean Business asked.

“It is not a detached process; quite the opposite. The renovation of our docks is a short-term solution that seeks to improve the first impression our tourists receive in what the [P3] is running. The works carried out by Ports are accounting for the [P3] process to avoid dislocations,” said Maceira Zayas, who could not say how much money has been invested in these improvements and to what effect, if any, this construction has had on the business model selected for the P3 project and its final value.

On Dec. 5, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares announced that Puerto Rico was recognized by CNN Travel with the Critics Award for Cruises for the best base port in the United States.

“This award is evidence of the great effort made by the Ports Authority and the Tourism Co. to boost the tourism sector and the economy that comes from this industry,” said the chief executive, who forgot to mention his wife’s efforts to convert Old San Juan into “the door to Puerto Rico.”




Smoke and Mirrors: The Puerto Rico Government Talent Bank

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló enacts a tax reform bill Dec. 10 (courtesy)

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Dec. 13-19, 2018, issue of Caribbean Business.

“We will establish a methodical process for the selection of secretaries and agency chiefs and advisers aiding the governor, which will include standardized and periodic evaluations during the four-year term. Elected officials must commit to and be proactive in the prevention, detection and notification of acts of corruption,” reads page 91 of the master plan, titled “Plan Para Puerto Rico,” which Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares vehemently referenced in debates, radio interviews and the media as the cornerstone of his 2016 election campaign.

At each opportunity, the strategists for the son of former Gov. Pedro Rosselló took this short paragraph to promote, by all possible means, a great idea: The Talent Bank.

Nearly two years since the leader of the New Progressive Party (NPP) was elected to take the island’s reins, that initiative has remained in a keepsake box. In fact, the website that was supposed to contain the form to request an evaluation as part of the process of selecting the best people to fill cabinet vacancies, www.planparapuertorico.com/unete, vanished along with the hope, for the first time in history, that a system would be established that could provide a real opportunity to hundreds of professionals, who dream of contributing to the island, by competing against candidates who traditionally occupy positions of power thanks to their contributions to political campaigns or the interests of the current administration.

Since August, Caribbean Business has been requesting from the administration’s press secretary, Rafael Vega, the results of that initiative. However, apart from a read-receipt Nov. 28, the efforts were unsuccessful, which raises a flag about the existence of that database.


Oversight felt at La Fortaleza

“No wonder the insistence,” reacted a source, who has full knowledge of the hiring process at the executive branch, after learning of the multiple requests made by Caribbean Business. “Since August, they have been insisting a lot that the resources of the Talent Bank must be used and that the heads of agencies cannot use outsiders,” said the source, who revealed the prevailing unease of several directors of executive branch entities, who have their hands tied when choosing their so-called trust personnel, or political appointees.

“Before August, each agency head brought their people and their team, except for certain positions such as communications, which Carlos Bermúdez picks along with Rossy Santiago. There is always the consideration that sometimes they said so and so must be named because he is the son of this person or that person, and sometimes [the appointments] came from lawmakers, mayors and politicians,” the source said, pointing directly to the former mayor of Yauco, the current NPP Sen. Abel Nazario Quiñones, when he was serving as assistant party secretary.

“In the other [party] positions, before Abel Nazario had his scandal, he had a lot of control over the appointments of the agencies and used as an excuse that they were in the Talent Bank. When they talk about the [Talent] Bank, the reality is the agency head doesn’t see it,” the source stressed.

So, what is the Talent Bank’s use? Caribbean Business asked.

“In the beginning, the Talent Bank was used if a candidate for deputy director or legal director or assistant was needed, to have a pool of options there, but since CB’s request, it has become mandatory. The requirement was by word of mouth and, during a meeting they held at the State Department, which was attended by almost all the heads of agencies, in which the topic of the Talent Bank was discussed,” the source said.

And what happened at that meeting?

“In essence, it was that there were rules that were not being implemented, that that was going to change and that from now on everything would go through the Talent Bank. But the truth is they use it as an excuse to place the people they want to reward. They never show the lists,” the source assured.

According to sources, the main problem with the so-called “Talent Bank” is that when an agency is about to name a person qualified for the position, but is denied, other government branches try to place someone who isn’t necessarily qualified, which damages the constitutional mandate of the separation of powers.

At the close of this edition, Caribbean Business learned that two main figures, one from La Fortaleza and the other from an agency linked to Puerto Rico’s economic development, exert undue pressure on agency heads to hire their relatives as a reward for actively participating in the political management of the NPP.




San Juan mayor: Trump has been a jerk to Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN – “He has been a jerk to the country.” That is how the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, reacted to alleged remarks by President Trump about not wanting to send additional funds to Puerto Rico for its recovery from Hurricane Maria.

The actual adjective the mayor used to describe Trump’s behavior is patán, which the Royal Spanish Academy defines as a crude, or unrefined, person, and which the “Lexicographical Treasury of the Spanish of Puerto Rico,” of the Puerto Rican Academy of the Spanish Language, includes as a definition: abusive, gross, male chauvinist.

Last Sunday, Axios reported that the president “doesn’t want to include additional Puerto Rico funding in further spending bills,” according to a congressional leadership aide.

According to CNN, White House officials have told congressional leaders and appropriators that Trump does not want any additional relief funding sent to Puerto Rico, a congressional leadership aide told the media company on Monday.

“The people of Puerto Rico have to take that into account and demand from those who side with him. Those who say he has given Puerto Rico everything it asked for. To demand from them that in one voice we tell the president that Puerto Rico is respected,” Cruz Soto said.

The mayor said Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds are a right the people have because it is insurance that is even paid in mortgages.

“If he doesn’t have control of his government, then he should solve that matter. But every time the president talks about Puerto Rico, he reveals his ignorance,” she said.
In Trump’s alleged remarks, he argues that his wariness has to do with a Wall Street Journal article that said: “Puerto Rico bond prices soared…after the federal oversight board that runs the U.S. territory’s finances released a revised fiscal plan that raises expectations for disaster funding and economic growth.”

When the fiscal plan’s certification process was taking place, Trump had claimed in a tweet that Puerto Rico’s “inept politicians are trying to use the massive and ridiculously high amounts of hurricane/disaster funding to pay off other obligations.”
Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares declined to comment on because he said the report was based on sources.

“We are talking about an article that originated from a source,” the governor said. “If I were to react to every source there is, I’ll never be able to address the main issues.”

“Secondly,” he further told the media, “if the president has changed his position on Puerto Rico, he can, as he has done a million times, take out his phone and open his Twitter application and post what he thinks” of Puerto Rico.

“Until I corroborate those remarks I do not want to comment about his intentions. Now, I do want to comment that if someone or something is going to try to stop the resources of the people of Puerto Rico, they will receive my fierce opposition on all fronts and with all the mechanisms I have [to fight it],” he stressed.