The posh boutiques that once lined cobbled Calle Fortaleza are gone now, replaced by T-shirt and souvenir shops grasping for dollars from passengers swarming down the gangways of the Carnival cruise ships that dock here most mornings. Bars advertise “happy hours” lasting from noon till night, while old men pushing tatty ice-cream carts go mostly unnoticed.
Old San Juan, the colonial gem of Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan, is tired but clinging on. Elsewhere on the island, the story is graver. Exhausted by a recession that has lasted for most of the past eight years and by talk of a possible default on government debt, Puerto Ricans are leaving in droves. Many who stay are jobless; doctors who haven’t been paid in months are downing their stethoscopes.
The pain that is Puerto Rico’s – and could soon be Wall Street’s if the debt crisis isn’t resolved – is poignant. Some blame its step-child relationship with America, neither a fully-fledged US state nor an independent nation. It hardly helps that Washington barely seems to care while at the same time it is suddenly lavishing attention on Cuba, its near neighbour to the west. The island has lost 20 per cent of its jobs since 2006. The unemployment rate stands at over 13 per cent. It’s no wonder people want to get out.
If you’ve been to old San Juan lately, you know it’s a dingy, sad-sack place in serious disrepair.
“People who graduate from the university go straight to the airport and never come back,” lamented Christopher Torres, 25, an activist studying computer engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, who recently led a student protest against proposed spending cuts. Some 144,000 Puerto Ricans decamped for the US last year and a higher number may depart in 2015. A White House official privately described it as the biggest population displacement ever seen outside of a war.
Population displacement seems to be one thing Barack Hussein Obama is very good at it. Also, nation-swallowing debt:
The next big payment on debt, of $655m, is due on 1 July. Meanwhile, the current administration of Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla has publicly warned it may run out of cash by 30 September. In its latest report, the Government Development Bank, its lending arm, which faces its own liquidity crisis, raised the possibility of a “moratorium” on debt servicing to maintain at least essential government services – an opaque way of saying default.
Wake me when this nightmare is over.