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Sen. Bernie Sanders said Tuesday the legislation addressing Puerto Rico's debt crisis would favor "vulture capitalists." (Photo: Alex/flickr/cc)

"Colonial Control Board" Poised to Have Hands on Puerto Rico's Finances

Senate advances legislation to deal with territory mired in debt crisis, crippled by austerity

Andrea Germanos

Puerto Rico's finances are poised to be controlled by what critics dub "a colonial control board" after the U.S. Senate on Wednesday advanced the so-called PROMESA legislation.

The motion for cloture passed 68-32, which "makes final passage of the legislation a virtual certainty," The Hill reports.

It's "identical to the plan passed by the House of Representatives this month," as Reuters reports, and comes just two days ahead of the deadline for the territory to make $2 billion of bond payments.

The White House has also indicated President Barack Obama would sign the measure.

Puerto Rico owes $72 billion in debt, but as a U.S. territory is ineligible for federal bankruptcy protection. According to geopolitical analyst Eric Draitser,

Puerto Rico has been the victim of a predatory capitalist campaign waged by major Wall Street banks, as well as hedge funds and private speculators, who have become heavily overleveraged in Puerto Rican debt through reckless bond purchases while Wall Street has fattened itself playing the role of middleman.

Religious development coalition Jubilee USA has urged the Senate to vote for final passage on the measure, with Eric LeCompte, its executive director, saying Monday, "If legislation doesn't pass before July 1st, we are opening the door for vulture funds to exploit Puerto Rico."

Democracy Now! host Juan Gonzalez, meanwhile, said that while the bill "would establish a means for Puerto Rico to restructure its $72 billion in debt," it would also impose "a colonial control board."

The "rescue package" would also allow for the minimum wage to be slashed for some workers.

Gonzalez said Wednesday, "it’s astonishing to me how so many liberals in this country, who rail about American aggression abroad, are being so silent over this absolute imposition of colonial control by the United States government over the affairs of Puerto Rico. And Jack Lew, the secretary of treasury, spent almost all day yesterday basically meeting with Democratic senators to convince them, to pressure them to support this bill."

He added that Senate approval of the bill would mean "a really dark day for the people of Puerto Rico, who are completely opposed to this bill."

PROMESA has critics within the Senate as well, such as Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who took to the chamber's floor for hours Tuesday arguing that the bill needed improvements. Politico reports:

Menendez says he’s dissatisfied and will try to add measures to the House bill to create what he says is a "clearer pathway to restructuring." He will propose that the island’s government and agencies be able to restructure their debt without a supermajority vote of approval by a federally appointed oversight board that the legislation will set up. He also wants to add two seats to the board to be nominated and approved by Puerto Rico’s governor and senate. And he or another Democrat will propose eliminating overtime and minimum wage provisions.

Bernie Sanders is also opposed to the legislation, and spoke against the measure on the Senate floor on Tuesday, saying that it would favor "vulture capitalists."

He also argued last month that it "would make a terrible situation even worse." The majority of the outside control board members would be handpicked by Majority Leader McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan "while the people of Puerto Rico would be in charge of choosing none," he stated.  "That may make sense to the Tea Party and one of the largest trade groups representing Wall Street—groups that endorsed this legislation—but it makes absolutely no sense to me."

Alejandro García-Padilla, the governor of Puerto Rico, writes at CNBC Wednesday that Puerto Rico has no choice other than to default on more than $1 billion, and that it "cannot endure any more austerity." As for PROMESA, he says it's "a mixed bag."

On the one hand, it provides the tools needed to protect the people of Puerto Rico from disorderly actions taken by the creditors. The immediate stay granted by the bill on all litigation is of the utmost importance in this moment. Most importantly, the authority to adjust our debt stock provides the legal tools to complete a broad restructuring and route Puerto Rico's revitalization.

On the other hand, PROMESA has its downsides. It creates an oversight board that unnecessarily undercuts the democratic institution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. But facing the upsides and downsides of the bill, it gives Puerto Rico no true choice at this point in time.

A final vote will come on Wednesday, the Associated Press reports.

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