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The island of Puerto Rico is many things - tropical paradise, a U.S. territory and an economic mess. State-owned institutions there have run deficits for years. They now owe investors some $73 billion. That's four times the debt that forced Detroit into bankruptcy, and that's a crisis. NPR's Greg Allen reports on the scramble to find a way out.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: One indication of the crisis is the tent city on the plaza in front of Puerto Rico's historical capitol building in San Juan. For more than a month, a group of protesters have been camped-out with signs, rallies and music, protesting plans by Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla to raise taxes to help cover Puerto Rico's crippling debt.
JAVIER LOPEZ: (Foreign language spoken).
ALLEN: Labor organizer Javier Lopez says, "we want fair reform. Those who have more should pay more - not the working poor." For months now, the financial crisis has been front-page news in Puerto Rico and people are getting angrier. Sergio Marxuach with the Center for a New Economy in San Juan says he gets asked about it all the time on the street and even in his local pharmacy.
SERGIO MARXUACH: The pharmacist told me, do you think should I move to Miami, you know? I got this offer, you know, to work at a pharmacy in Miami. And I said well, (laughter) I have no idea what your financial situation is - I can tell you what's going on in Puerto Rico. But, people are very worried.
ALLEN: For 25 years, Puerto Rico has been caught in a debilitating economic spiral. Decades of recession and slow economic growth forced a succession of government to take out loans to cover budget deficits.
MARXUACH: What we have been doing is basically borrowing to survive today. Unfortunately, our debt levels have gotten to a point where the rating agencies have downgraded our credit to below investment grade.
ALLEN: Junk status. Puerto Rico has tried to negotiate a new bond sale with Wall Street investors. At the same time, the island's troubled energy company is desperately trying to stave-off default. Melba Acosta-Febo is Puerto Rico's point person on its economic crisis. For months, she's shuttled between the island, Washington, D.C. and New York City. At the Government Development Bank in San Juan, nearly 20 Wall Street bankers filed out of her office just before her interview with NPR. They'd just finished grilling Acosta for more than an hour.
MELBA ACOSTA-FEBO: In these meetings, I mean, most of the questions are very similar questions, I mean, about all the issues - liquidity, finances, I mean, you know.
ALLEN: Acosta says the Padilla administration inherited the huge debt and the troubled economy. That's true, but after years of mismanagement and borrowing, there aren't any easy solutions. To deal with its debt, Puerto Rico passed a law that would allow troubled agencies like the state-owned power company to seek bankruptcy protection. A federal judge struck down the law though. The Commonwealth is appealing that decision. It's also pushing for a law in Washington to amend the bankruptcy code to include Puerto Rico. But in the meantime, the island needs to find money to pay its creditors, and that means raising taxes. But in Puerto Rico, raising taxes is one thing, collecting them is another. Tax evasion is rampant. Economist Sergio Marxuach says Puerto Rico collects just 56 percent of the sales tax that's due.
MARXUACH: You could see doctors here who charge you on a cash basis only. We're talking people who went to Harvard Med, Johns Hopkins, you know, and would have this sign, you know, that said, no checks, no credit cards, no ATM cards, just cash.
ALLEN: To combat tax evasion, Puerto Rico recently passed a law requiring merchants to take some other payment in addition to cash. The Padilla administration also wants to adopt a value-added tax - a consumption tax that would be more difficult to evade. Government Development Bank head Melba Acosta concedes that small businesses are likely to take the biggest hit from the new tax.
ACOSTA-FEBO: Many of those people don't report the whole revenues or over-report expenses. So now suddenly because they're paying consumption, they're paying more. But that's part of what we're doing to curtail tax evasion and to bring more money to the system.
ALLEN: The current tax reform proposal has united Puerto Ricans rarely seen at protests outside the capitol, where tourists, protesters and snack vendors selling ice cream and doughnuts mingle under palm trees within view of the Caribbean ocean. Even some within Governor Padilla's own party are skeptical about raising taxes to pay down the debt. Puerto Rico's House recently voted down his tax plan. Puerto Rican Senator Ramon Luis Nieves says he believes in the end the Commonwealth may simply be unable to pay its $73 billion debt in full.
RAMON LUIS NIEVES: At some point, we will have to decide either to pay for the debt service or pay for our schools and hospitals, health care and social services for the poor. I don't want to reach that point.
ALLEN: Without enough money to pay its debts and with bankruptcy currently not an option, ultimately it may not be Puerto Rico, but bondholders on Wall Street who will decide the island's future. Greg Allen, NPR News.
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