Puerto Rico has US$70 billion in total debt, a 45 percent poverty rate and unemployment more than twice the U.S. average.
Thousands of students from the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras approved a 48-hour strike inside the university Wednesday to protest against the massive budget cuts announced by the government last Thursday.
About 3,500 students gathered at 7 a.m. as a General Assembly in several amphitheaters against the US$300 million budget cuts ordered by the U.S. Financial Control Board.
The vote for the strike concluded the session, with 2,788 in favor of a strike and 91 against, while the first resolution approved a better inclusion of the transgender and transsexual community in the various services provided by the university.
One day earlier, the Citizen Front for the Debt Audit handed to Congress over 100,000 signatures in a petition for a public audit of the territory’s debt. They also demanded authorities appoint new commissioners for the Commission for the Integral Audit of the Public Debt, set up last year by former Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla.
The debt crisis in Puerto Rico is deeply tied to its status as a U.S. colony, which means the country cannot make any independent decisions about its economy, including negotiating new debt terms. All decisions about Puerto Rico have to go through U.S. Congress, where Puerto Rico has no representative.
On Feb. 9, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello — who campaigned as more conciliatory toward Wall Street, vowing to cut government spending to pay as much of Puerto Rico’s debt as possible — said Puerto Rico would make a US$1.4 million interest payment on constitutionally-backed bonds by drawing on so-called “clawback” money deposited at Banco Popular.
The payment to general obligation bondholders, which was due on Feb. 1 and initially missed, represents a departure from a series of defaults triggered last year by Garcia Padilla.
Rossello, who was sworn in on Jan. 2, said he would fund the payment by drawing on a US$146 million account at Banco Popular, funded with money that had been earmarked for other debt payments, but was redirected or “clawed back” by Garcia Padilla last year as the island grappled with a fiscal crisis.