On Sunday, Puerto Rico will likely default again on some of its debts, which now total over $70 billion. The island will struggle to provide vital public services like water and electricity if it can provide them regularly at all. Its economy has not grown in over a decade, and there is a $28 billion gap in funding over the next five years alone. Over the next decade, many people will face very real consequences from the developing crisis, and as always, the pressure to emigrate to the continental United States remains high. For many, the situation is fight-or-flight.
No state has recently faced such dire straits as Puerto Rico, even during the Great Recession. But Puerto Rico is not a state. It is an entity that is often almost completely at the whim of Congress, the most dysfunctional body in national politics today. Congress has toyed with policy on the island for decades, leaving a confusing and contradictory set of legislation and precedents behind. Today, gridlock politics in Congress threaten to deny Puerto Rico the very tools it needs to fight its battle.
For much of the rest of the country, congressional deadlock is at worst an infuriating reality of the current partisan divide. It may be an enemy of progress, but not necessarily its sole determinant. The American economy has rebounded despite years of bitter fighting and sequesters and budget showdowns, and for most Americans, life has improved, despite a political environment that favors inaction and bluster. In Puerto Rico, however, the crisis will approach life-or-death if it is allowed to continue. Public hospitals and health-care facilities may close, exacerbating an ongoing crisis that already sees Puerto Rican patients receiving far worse health care than their mainland counterparts. Many of those who remain on the island after the mass exoduses of the past half-decade are the poorest, the sickest, and the oldest, and the island’s population and tax base are still plummeting. To add injury to injury, Puerto Rico has become the primary American front in the public-health fight against Zika, just as the health, economic, and social infrastructure needed to fight the virus are eroding.