Puerto Rico's Battered Economy: The Greece Of The Caribbean? With the highest unemployment rate in the U.S. and a mountain of debt, the island is facing a declining population. But those who stay insist they're there for the long haul.
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Puerto Rico's Battered Economy: The Greece Of The Caribbean?

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Puerto Rico's Battered Economy: The Greece Of The Caribbean?

Puerto Rico's Battered Economy: The Greece Of The Caribbean?

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Here are a few facts about Puerto Rico that might grab your attention. The unemployment rate is 14 percent - higher than anywhere else in the United States. The island had more murders last year per capita than Mexico. The economy is drawing comparisons to Greece.


People on that island who are American citizens are escaping all this, moving mostly to the U.S. mainland - people like Arlene Bonet.

ARLENE BONET: What kind of life I can give my grandchildren in the future if Puerto Rico, instead of going up, is going down?

GREENE: Arlene found work and a new life for herself in Florida. We met her there yesterday as we began a series looking at Puerto Rico's challenges. This morning, the family Arlene left behind.


GREENE: We're beginning here on the southern shore of the island. There are smaller cities here, smaller beach towns, and also an oceanside resort where we went to meet Arlene's son Edward where he works.

EDWARD BONET: The boat just got here. We're heading towards the dock now.

GREENE: Edward works here as a scuba instructor. He's 23 years old and his story is all too familiar on this island. He started college but couldn't afford to finish. He's trying to make a life for himself here, even as his family moves away. He and his mom do stay in touch. How often does she talk to you on the phone and say, Edward, you know you could move to Florida? You could come join me up here?

BONET: Well, when she moved out, each time we spoke on the phone, she always like try. But after a couple of times she just quit.

GREENE: One reason Edward is so determined to stay is because the mainland seems like such a foreign place, with different traditions and different routines. Edward tried it once. He and his mom lived briefly in Florida when he was a kid.

BONET: In the U.S. at school we had to sing the national "Star Spangled Banner" every morning. And here, most schools don't do it at all.

GREENE: You and I are both U.S. citizens. Do you feel that way? I mean, do you feel like a U.S. citizen?

BONET: Well, it's not that we are not - we don't feel like we're the U.S. It's like we feel we're part of them but we're not you.

GREENE: And yet at home in Puerto Rico, his family is shrinking. One person left on the island is his grandma, Veva. Edward lives with her and she relies on him now that her daughter's in Florida. Tell me a little bit about her.

BONET: Oh, my grandma, she's great. I mean she parties more than I do.



GREENE: She lives about 45 minutes away from where he works. It's near the city of Cabo Rojo. We drove past strip malls and we found a neighborhood of small houses. The patios where people sit and chat were behind metal gates.

BONET: Hola.

VEVA: (Spanish spoken)

GREENE: I'm glad we were able to find you. I hear you like going out at night.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She loves dancing. She loves parties, and she loves casinos.

GREENE: Oh good. I like the casinos too. I'm not so good at the dancing. On a warm, breezy night, we sat down on her patio. Veva, who's 74, remembers a Puerto Rico when people had money to spend and the streets were safe enough for her to go out with friends whenever she wanted to. Today she worries about paying her bills and crime. Her family worries too and they want her to move to Florida with them.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, they talk about it and she always says she's not going to leave, but when she gets older, save a room for me.

GREENE: Talking about this got her a little choked up but the smile was back when we asked her to show off her dance moves.

VEVA: (Spanish spoken)


GREENE: Grandma and grandson danced together for us right there under the porch light. And something about this scene said so much about Puerto Rico. This island, with its rich cultural heritage and music, pulls people to stay, even as other forces push them to leave. Now, this is just one family, but everywhere we went we heard stories like this, time and time again - families wondering if and when to go.


GREENE: We said goodbye to Veva's family and drove three hours north to the capital, San Juan. We wanted, among other things, to understand what is ailing the economy here. We went to the Rio Piedras Market to do a little shopping with Rosario Rivera. She's an economics professor at the University of Puerto Rico. Let's buy some fruit.


GREENE: Can we buy some fruit?


GREENE: She walked us past little stalls on the sidewalk that were selling clothing, DVDs. One man was selling oranges out of a shopping cart. He's actually peeling it for me.

RIVERA: Yep. That's classic.

GREENE: He's rotating and curling off the peel.

RIVERA: Yeah. Taste it.

GREENE: Oh, that's really good. Juicy.

RIVERA: Juicy and sweet.

GREENE: OK. So this delicious orange that we just bought out of...

RIVERA: For 25 cents.

GREENE: ...for 25 cents - what can I learn about the Puerto Rican economy from this delicious, juicy orange?

RIVERA: That orange that you bought for 25 cents goes to the informal economy.

GREENE: You don't get the sense that this guy is filling out his tax papers.

RIVERA: I don't think so.

GREENE: Informal economy - it's an important phrase when diagnosing the problems here. Like many Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico has little industry of its own, and when times are bad, they struggle even more than other places to create jobs. And so much of the economic activity is whatever's (unintelligible). This man's selling ice cream from a cart, people selling loads of discount jewelry, perfume, purses. The problem is, when people buy stuff in places like this, the government is missing out on taxing billions of dollars of income, which conjures up images of another place with a lot of sunshine and a lot of debt.

RIVERA: They have compared us to Greece a lot of times, especially since Greece had a lot of debt and they have to take these austerity measures. Even if we are part of the United States, we have a lot of problems that resemble those countries that we look with so much disdain.

GREENE: But something makes this place so different from Greece. Dealing with the economic mess is America's responsibility.

RIVERA: If we don't pay the debt, stuff is going to happen.

GREENE: And here's how it could affect you. Even if you've never been to Puerto Rico or even thought about it, Puerto Rico's government has issued government bonds, and if you've got a 401(k) or pension for retirement, chances are some of your money is invested in those bonds. They are now near junk status, and all this means you can feel the pain if Puerto Rico's economy collapses. At the moment, though, Professor Rivera says Puerto Ricans on this island are bearing the brunt of this.

RIVERA: So less and less services and less and less resources for the people.

GREENE: A lot of educated people are leaving. And I wonder, have you and your husband talked about leaving and going to the mainland?

RIVERA: Sadly, I have to say yes. If you asked me that a few years ago, I would say no with capital letters. I won't leave the island. I am here for the long haul. And I am here for the long haul, but it gets tiresome.

GREENE: That's Rosario Rivera. She's an economist. We're still at the Rio Piedras Market. I wanted to take you over here to this jewelry store. We heard about a shooting here just the other day. Crime, it is another big problem on this island, and another big reason a lot of people are leaving for the mainland. We'll pick up that conversation tomorrow right here at the market.


GREENE: This is NPR News.

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