South Florida Puerto Ricans Mobilize Around Debt Crisis

Jun 28, 2016

 This is an important week for Puerto Rico. The island is set to default on $2 billion of debt (of a $70 billion total) unless Congress passes a relief package before its July 4  recess.

As Edwin Melendez, leader of the newly founded Puerto Rican National Agenda advocacy group, explains,  all roads to economic recovery for the island go through Congress. That’s frustrating for islanders because they don’t have a voting representative there.

The island’s distress also presents an opportunity for the community to come together, especially in South Florida, according to some activists in the area. Natascha Otero-Santiago is one of the leaders of South Florida’s chapter of the National Agenda, which convened a meeting last week.

There are about 300,000 Puerto Ricans in South Florida, spread almost exactly evenly among Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward counties.

Jesse Cosme, a Puerto Rican community organizer who has worked with the Black Lives Matter Alliance in South Florida, said that the geography of the population makes it difficult to mobilize around Puerto Rican issues.

Some other cities have Puerto Rican populations which are more concentrated. New York City’s Harlem neighborhood has a high concentration of Puerto Ricans, and they have more political power there. Melissa Mark-Viverito, the New York City Council speaker, spoke at last week’s event. Her district in New York City includes the heavily Puerto Rican East Harlem.

Otero-Santiago lobbied the National Puerto Rican Agenda for South Florida to have its own chapter, she said Monday. The Puerto Rican population in the region has grown significantly in recent years, while Puerto Ricans still don’t have the organizing or political power that they do in cities like New York or Oakland.

Attendance at last week’s event shows the challenges that Puerto Rican mobilization faces in South Florida. The population is so spread out that the organization held the same event two nights in a row at two different locations in the area.

Cosme said there are three steps to organizing – educate, organize, agitate – and the community here is on step one. Much of last week's meeting was spent on Puerto Rican economic history.

“We’re in a heavy education phase,” Cosme said. He added that the spread-out population can help Puerto Ricans generate solidarity that will be necessary to rectify the island’s financial woes.

“By being spread out now we’re forced to interact with those communities, other Latin groups,” he said.  “When we do that and when we can organize in those spaces, we can bring the Puerto Rican agenda into those spaces as well.”

That solidarity may prove important with Congress set to step into a more active role on the island. Otero-Santiago, Cosme and others expressed concerns about the relief package, especially one provision that lowers the minimum wage for people under 25 to $4.25 an hour.

The National Puerto Rican Agenda is hosting an assembly in Camden, New Jersey in July. Otero-Santiago said she hoped around 150 South Floridians would attend.