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Puerto Rico seeks to become US state in bid to escape economic meltdown

The island remains under the supervision of a Washington-appointed fiscal oversight board

The €69 billion public debt strangling Puerto Rico has given a boost to backers of the idea of becoming a US state – a movement led by the island’s new governor. Ricardo Rosselló, who took office on Monday, has pledged to do everything he can over the next four years to make Puerto Rico the 51st member of the union.

A woman shields herself from the sun using Rosselló campaign material.
A woman shields herself from the sun using Rosselló campaign material. REUTERS

“The crisis is directly tied to the collapse of the colony,” said Rosselló, who feels that the current status of Puerto Rico as a Free Associated State is keeping the island in a state of subordination that could be corrected through full incorporation into the world’s top power.

Rosselló, 37, is the son of another former governor, Pedro Rosselló, who held office between 1993 and 2001. Known popularly as “Ricky” Rosselló, he studied at MIT and his career includes stem cell research.

As the new governor of Puerto Rico, he now faces the challenge of tackling a massive debt crisis, one that led to the first debt default by a public corporation in 2015 and pushed more than 200,000 citizens to emigrate, out of a population of three and a half million.

The US cannot pretend to be a model of democracy when it is discriminating against its Puerto Rican citizens

Ricardo Rosselló, governor

Unemployment on the island is in excess of 12%, whereas on the mainland it is under 5%. And per capita GDP is $28,000, compared with $53,000 in the US.

Last summer, US Congress passed legislation provisionally protecting Puerto Rico from its creditors, but also setting up a fiscal oversight board made up of Washington congress members.

Rosselló speaking in San Juan.
Rosselló speaking in San Juan. REUTERS

The protection ends in February, and Rosselló has said he will try to extend the deadline.

On Tuesday, a day after being sworn into office, the new governor traveled to Washington to start drumming up support for his campaign to have the island become a US state. In his speech, the leader of the New Progressive Party blamed his predecessor, Alejandro García Padilla, for the imposition of the oversight body.

He also criticized the US, which “cannot pretend to be a model of democracy when it is discriminating against its Puerto Rican citizens, denying them the right to political, economic and social equality under the US flag.”

Puerto Rico is in an emergency situation. Rosselló has admitted that the pension fund is running dry, the money to pay government workers will run out in February, and the public health system is on the brink of collapse.

English version by Susana Urra.

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