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Puerto Rico's Crushing Debt Is Unpayable – And The Fallout Will Hit Florida

Ricardo Arduengo
Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla

As WLRN has reported this year, the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico is staggering under $73 billion in debt. The Caribbean island’s governor is giving a speech this afternoon to announce it’s unpayable. And that could have a significant economic impact here in South Florida.

How bad is Puerto Rico’s financial crisis? Its debt load equals three-fourths of its entire economy. Governor Alejandro García Padilla has conceded that Puerto Rico can no longer make payments on a debt that massive.

Annual trade between Florida and Puerto Rico is about $2 billion. Bankruptcy attorney Charles Tatelbaum of the Fort Lauderdale law firm Tripp Scott says Puerto Rico’s collapse will hit Florida.

“Florida businesses and especially South Florida businesses are the largest provider of goods and services to Puerto Rico," says Tatelbaum. "When the government can’t pay its bills, it cannot pay those vendors who sell to the government. But more importantly it can’t pay the Puerto Rican businesses that deal with the government, who in turn cannot pay their Florida suppliers.”

One hopeful note is that the U.S. Congress may finally move now to allow U.S. territories like Puerto Rico to file for bankruptcy protection.

“We hope so," says Tatelbaum, "because otherwise it’s going to be financial chaos. Worse than Greece.”

The island’s emergency is also expected to force many more Puerto Ricans – who are U.S. citizens – to move to the U.S. mainland. They are now Florida’s fastest-growing Latino group.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.