Puerto Rico Debt Relief Law Stirs Colonial Resentment “The problem is not the junta, it’s the colony.”

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People`s supporters in front of the federal courthouse in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. They hung banners saying, “The problem is not the junta, it’s the colony.” CreditÁngel Franco/The New York Times

 
SAN JUAN, P.R. — They shouted angrily about “colonialism” and called for a Prexit, or Puerto Rican exit, from the United States. They denounced the “junta” — or federal control board — that will soon direct this island’s failing governance and finances.
Late Thursday afternoon, even Gov. Alejandro García Padilla seemed to be joining in the protest, declaring a moratorium on paying the island’s debts just one day before a big payment was due — even as President Obama was signing a new law that precludes the governor from making such a move.

But beneath the defiant rhetoric — on the Puerto Rican talk shows, at labor rallies and at an “Occupy” vigil at the federal courthouse here — there was also resignation: an awareness that Puerto Rico’s own elected officials had let the island slip into a death spiral, and that the passage by the United States Senate on Wednesday of a bill meant to assert federal authority was really the only available solution.

It’s not all their fault, it’s our fault, too, because we voted for them,” said Dielmarie Negrón, a geography student at the University of Puerto Rico and a volunteer for Iniciativa Comunitaria, a nonprofit group that serves addicts and homeless people in several Puerto Rican cities.

We feel bad, because we can no longer make our own decisions,” she added, speaking in an interview at her group’s offices on Wednesday, after the Senate vote. “But it was our own decisions that got us here.”

Everyone seems to have strong feelings — many of them conflicting — about their shared predicament: a passionate love of Borikén, the widely used pre-Columbian name for their island; a sense of shock that their government amassed a $72 billion debt; a bitter resentment of Washington — and yet a begrudging appreciation of the benefits that American citizenship and the United States safety net can bring.

Most of the people are against the junta, but maybe it’s what we deserve after all those years of corruption,” said Kamille Camacho Monclova, interviewed with Ms. Negrón as they made sandwiches and coffee to deliver to homeless people.

Most of Iniciativa Comunitaria’s funding comes from the Puerto Rican government, and the group’s budget has been cut by about 40 percent in the last three years as the island’s troubles have mounted. Maybe these things had to happen so we would get a wake-up call,

Maybe these things had to happen so we would get a wake-up call,” Ms. Camacho said, referring to Washington’s decision to establish a seven-member control board known here as the “junta.” The word simply means “board” in Spanish, despite its dictatorial connotations in English. The law itself goes by the acronym “Promesa,” which means “promise” in Spanish.

The need to pay the island’s $72 billion debt, including a $1.9 billion payment due Friday on which there will be a default, has crowded out other governmental spending in Puerto Rico, leaving a wake of devastation: closed schools, fewer hospital beds, homeless people squatting in abandoned houses. The many symptoms of social breakdown lie just out of sight of the luxury resorts where compatriots from the mainland still flock to swim, golf and relax.

The government has already scared off some tourists by talking up the Zika virus threat; this week officials also warned that they would stop testing the water supply, to save money.

I hope that now that we may have dodged the default bullet, Puerto Rico doesn’t fall off the radar screen again,” said Miguel Soto-Class, president of the Center for a New Economy, a research group in San Juan.

In addition to imposing federal control, the Promesa legislation gives Puerto Rico the power to unilaterally reduce its debts, something that a debtor can normally do only in bankruptcy. Federal law explicitly bars all branches of the Puerto Rican government from entering bankruptcy, the way many mainland cities and counties could if they were in the island’s position — and here, that exclusion is seen as a slap in the face.

It shows what complete imperial power there is in America,” said Camila Sánchez, a fine arts student at the University of Puerto Rico who was helping the Occupy movement in front of the United States District Court. The protesters, who are pressing for Puerto Rican independence, set up an encampment near the end of an avenue named for Eugenio María de Hostos y de Bonilla, an early advocate of this cause.

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Gov. Alejandro García Padilla of Puerto Rico meeting with journalists in Havana in early June.CreditAlexandre Meneghini/Reuters

The American flag fluttered above the courthouse and its massive parking garage. Just outside a fence and a guard post, the protesters had pitched tents, raised a small Puerto Rico flag and hung banners saying, “The problem is not the junta, it’s the colony.”

Ms. Sánchez said protesters had converged on the spot at 6 p.m. Wednesday, as soon as they heard that Promesa had passed the Senate. She said she was angry, among other things, about a provision to lower the minimum wage here to $4.25 an hour for young workers, and at the government’s announcement about not testing the water supply.

We’re looking, basically, at the next Flint,” she said, referring to the struggling city in Michigan where high levels of lead have been found in the drinking water. Flint’s deeply troubled finances are controlled by a state-appointed emergency manager, in an arrangement similar to what is expected now for Puerto Rico.

As if to embody the emotional churn here, the governor, Mr. García Padilla, flipped his allegiance on the issue of federal intervention, doing a 180-degree turn at the very last minute. An outspoken opponent of federal oversight, in early June he became the first sitting governor in Puerto Rican history to travel to Cuba, where he attended a Caribbean summit as an observer, spoke with President Raúl Castro and laid groundwork for a commercial office in Havana.

The move stunned policy makers in Washington, who had been pushing the sensitive Promesa package forward for months and expected the governor to join them in the final lobbying offensive on Capitol Hill.

This week, Mr. García Padilla turned up in Washington, where he dutifully accompanied the Treasury secretary, Jacob J. Lew, to lobby for the bill.

Although Mr. García Padilla is not running for re-election, his party, the Popular Democrats, has for decades promoted Puerto Rico’s continued status as a United States territory. But no one here uses that term. Here, Puerto Rico is said to be a “free associated state” of the United States, and the word “territory” is considered pejorative. “Free associated state” is not defined in the relevant laws and seems to mean whatever anyone wants it to mean.

In Washington, lawmakers have said they had power to enact the Promesa under the Territorial Clause of the United States Constitution, and that renewed the debate here about whether Puerto Rico should be a state, a territory, a sovereign nation — or just what. Perhaps the most forceful voice in the Senate against the passage of Promesa was Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont who has been running for president as a Democrat, who said that the “junta” would be akin to “a colonial master” for the island.

A version of this article appears in print on July 1, 2016, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: New Puerto Rico Debt Relief Law Stirs Colonial Resentments. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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