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Economy & Trade

Faith Leaders Call for Debt Relief to Puerto Rico

WASHINGTON, Aug 31 2015 (IPS) - Puerto Rico’s religious leaders have called for debt relief of the Caribbean U.S. territory in the face of the 72 billion dollar liability that represents 20,000 dollars of debt for every man, woman and child.

In a statement issued Aug. 31, the clergy called on the U.S. Federal Reserve to intervene if Congress fails to pass bankruptcy protection to the financially-strapped island.

“This debt crisis threatens to push more of our people into poverty and put people out of work,” said San Juan Archbishop Roberto González Nieves, leader of Puerto Rico’s mostly Catholic population.

“The religious community stands with vulnerable people and we call for the crisis to be resolved in a way that protects the poor and grows our economy,” he added.

At a press conference in San Juan, leaders of the major religious groups laid out six principles to resolve the crisis.

“Puerto Rico’s religious leaders are fighting for the lives of their people,” stated Eric LeCompte, executive director of the faith-based development coalition Jubilee USA Network.

Jubilee USA Network is an alliance of more than 75 U.S. organisations and 400 faith communities working with 50 Jubilee global partners. Jubilee’s mission is to build an economy that serves, protects and promotes the participation of the most vulnerable.

LeCompte visited Puerto Rico in mid-August to advise religious and political leaders on solutions to the crisis.  “We need to get Puerto Rico’s debt back to sustainable levels and ensure that the island has a path for economic growth,” he said

Some of the hedge funds, arguing for cuts in Puerto Rico’s economic growth, were or are currently involved in debt disputes in Greece, Argentina and Detroit, Michigan.

Two recent reports, one commissioned by a group of hedge funds which purchased the island’s distressed debt and the other authorised by Puerto Rico’s own government, suggest new austerity plans to pay off portions of the debt.

The reports note a range of “fiscal adjustments”, including reducing the minimum wage, education resources and healthcare costs. One of the principles promoted by the coalition of religious leaders is that any resolution to the financial crisis prevents further austerity plans.

The religious leaders raised concern over predatory hedge fund activity in their statement. Beyond the Catholic Church, other religious groups signing the statement include Methodists, Lutherans, Evangelicals, Pentecostals and the Disciples.

“As religious leaders, we see how desperate the situation is for Puerto Rico’s people,” said Reverend Heriberto Martínez Rivera, secretary-general of Puerto Rico’s Biblical Society and the leader of the religious coalition confronting the debt crisis.

“Too many of our people are already suffering from austerity policies and many brothers and sisters have left for the United States hungry for work and a better quality of life,” he added.

Beyond calling for debt relief and criticising austerity policies, the religious leaders’ statement asserts the need for greater Puerto Rican budget transparency and participation in future debt negotiations by people negatively affected by the crisis.

Edited by Phil Harris   

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