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U.S. Supreme Court Allows Puerto Rico’s Exclusion From Welfare Program

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court this week rejected a bid to extend a federal program offering benefits to low-income elderly, blind and disabled people to residents of Puerto Rico, finding that Congress had the authority to prevent those living in the American territory from receiving the assistance.

The justices ruled 8-1 in favor of President Joe Biden’s administration, reversing a lower court’s ruling that a 1972 decision by Congress to exclude Puerto Rico from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program violated a U.S. Constitution requirement that laws apply equally to everyone.

The ruling denies the welfare benefits to an estimated 300,000 people on the Caribbean island who otherwise might qualify. The federal government has said an expansion covering Puerto Rico would have cost $2 billion a year.

“Enough of this colonial status that discriminates against us and affects our quality of life. The only and the best solution is statehood,” Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood governor, said in a statement.

Puerto Rico’s status is a divisive issue on the island, with some favoring remaining a territory while others push for statehood or even independence from the United States.

The ruling, authored by conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, found that Congress acted validly under a constitutional provision letting lawmakers treat territories differently than states.

U.S. Supreme Court Allows Puerto Rico's Exclusion From Welfare Program
Visitors walk their dogs across the Supreme Court Plaza during a storm on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., February 22, 2022. REUTERS/Tom Brenner/File Photo

Kavanaugh said a ruling extending benefits to Puerto Rico could have “far-reaching consequences” inflicting additional financial burdens on its residents — including that they be required to pay federal income tax, which they do not currently do.

“The Constitution does not require that extreme outcome,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were from Puerto Rico, was the sole dissenter. Sotomayor pointed out that as the island does not have voting representation in Congress, its people cannot rely on Congress to recognize their rights.

“Equal treatment of citizens should not be left to the vagaries of the political process,” Sotomayor wrote.

A provision extending SSI benefits to Puerto Rico is part of Democratic-backed social spending legislation that has stalled in Congress.

Jose Luis Vaello Madero, the disabled 67-year-old man at the center of the case, received SSI benefits when he lived in New York but lost eligibility when he moved to Puerto Rico in 2013. The U.S. government sued him in federal court in Washington in 2017 seeking more than $28,000 for SSI payments he received after moving to Puerto Rico.

“It is unfortunate the court failed to see the discrimination faced by the most needy Puerto Rican Americans whose only distinguishing feature is that they choose to remain in Puerto Rico, their home on U.S. soil. This is a devastating day for Mr. Vaello Madero and for Puerto Rico,” said Hermann Ferre, Vaello Madero’s lawyer.

The United States Justice Department declined comment.

Many Puerto Ricans have long complained that the island’s residents are treated worse than other Americans despite being U.S. citizens. Puerto Rico, which is not a state, is the most-populous of the U.S. territories, with about 3 million people.

SSI benefits are available to American citizens living in all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and the Northern Mariana Islands, but not the territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam.

The Supreme Court has been instrumental in defining the legal status of Puerto Ricans dating to a series of rulings starting more than a century ago called the Insular Cases, some suffused with racist language. Those rulings endorsed the notion that the people of newly acquired U.S. territories could receive different treatment than citizens living in U.S. states.

Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch in a separate opinion said the court in a future case should overturn the Insular Cases, saying they “rest on racial stereotypes” and “deserve no place in our law.”

Congress decided not to include Puerto Rico when it enacted the SSI program. Puerto Ricans are eligible for a different benefits program, called Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled, that allows for more local control but not as much federal funding.

The government’s appeal originally was filed by former President Donald Trump’s administration. Biden’s administration continued the appeal while also urging Congress to extend SSI to Puerto Rico.

—REUTERS

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Puerto Rico Exits Bankruptcy After Grueling Debt Negotiation

Puerto Rico’s government is formally exiting bankruptcy after completing the largest public debt restructuring in U.S. history after announcing nearly seven years ago that it was unable to pay its more than $70 billion debt

SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico’s government formally exited bankruptcy Tuesday, completing the largest public debt restructuring in U.S. history after announcing nearly seven years ago that it was unable to pay its more than $70 billion debt.

The exit means that the American Caribbean territory’s government will resume billion-dollar payments to bondholders for the first time in several years, settle some $1 billion worth of claims filed by residents and local businesses and issue more than $10 billion worth of bonds. The government also will restore up to $1.3 billion taken from a public pension system.

“This is a significant success,” said Natalie Jaresko, executive director of the federal control board that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances and its debt restructuring process. “Remaining in bankruptcy has been a drag on the economy in multiple ways.”

The bankruptcy led to widely criticized austerity measures on an island that paid some $1 billion in fees to consultants and lawyers and in other expenses during the process.

The exit was a priority for the board and Jaresko, who previously announced she is retiring April 1. A replacement has not been named yet. The board is expected to remain in place until Puerto Rico has four consecutive balanced budgets, a feat that has yet to be achieved.

The debt restructuring plan was approved by a federal judge in January. It reduces claims against Puerto Rico’s government from $33 billion to just over $7.4 billion, with 7 cents of every taxpayer dollar going to debt service, compared with 25 cents previously.

“This is a transcendental moment,” said Gov. Pedro Pierluisi. “The plan is not perfect … but it has a lot of good things.”

The board has clashed several times with Pierluisi and previous administrations, particularly on a proposal to reduce certain monthly pension benefits that was ultimately scrapped.

The plan also creates a public pension reserve trust that will be funded with more than $10 billion in upcoming years.

“For decades, past governments have neglected to put aside enough money,” Jaresko said.

While many celebrated Puerto Rico’s exit from bankruptcy, Jaresko said it is unlikely the island will be able to access financial markets soon because it has yet to get its audited financial statements up to date.

Puerto Rico accumulated more than $70 billion in public debt and more than $50 billion in public pension liabilities through decades of corruption, mismanagement and excessive borrowing. The U.S. Congress created the federal board in 2016, a year after the island’s government said it was unable to pay its debt.

In 2017, Puerto Rico’s government filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S history. Months later, Hurricane Maria struck, razing the island’s power grid and causing billions of dollars in damage.

Still unresolved are the bankruptcy proceedings for the $5.8 billion in debt held by Puerto Rico’s Highways and Transportation Authority and the Electric Power Company, which owes $9 billion, the largest debt of any government agency.

In early March, Puerto Rico’s governor announced he was canceling a debt restructuring deal for the power company, saying that worsening inflation, surging oil prices and other factors had changed significantly since the deal was negotiated with creditors in 2019.

Jarekso said the board expects to soon renew negotiations, mediation and discussion with all those who bought bonds issued by the power company.

By DÁNICA COTO/The Associated Press

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Puerto Rico To Increase Teachers’ Salaries By $1,000 A Month

SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico’s governor announced Monday that all public school teachers will receive a temporary $1,000 monthly salary increase starting in July as he promised to make it permanent.

The move comes just days after 70 percent of teachers left their classrooms and joined a protest to demand higher wages, better pensions and improved working conditions. Another protest is scheduled for later this month.

“For years, we’ve truly been waiting for this moment,” said Víctor Bonilla, president of the Puerto Rico Teachers’ Association, which represents some 25,000 teachers.

Puerto Rico To Increase Teachers’ Salaries By ,000 A Month

The base salary of public school teachers in Puerto Rico is $1,750 a month, a number that hasn’t budged in 13 years. While some teachers praised Monday’s announcement, union leaders noted that they are still seeking a base salary of $3,500 a month.

Giovanna Ostolaza, who teaches 8th and 9th grade English at a school in the capital of San Juan, said it’s very hard to live on a teacher’s salary, especially for those who have families. She also worried that the governor might not come through on his promise to make the increase permanent.

“They have to prioritize education,” she said. “These are people essential to society.”

Puerto Rico economist José Caraballo-Cueto noted that utilities are nearly 60 percent more expensive in Puerto Rico than the U.S. average, and groceries are 18 percent more expensive. However, healthcare and housing costs, among others, are lower in comparison, according to Puerto Rico’s Institute of Statistics.

The teachers’ association and others had rejected a smaller wage increase recently approved by a federal control board overseeing Puerto Rico’s finances and the U.S. territory’s exit from bankruptcy.

Puerto Rico To Increase Teachers’ Salaries By ,000 A Month

Teachers would have seen an average increase of 27 percent compared with what they made in fiscal year 2019. They would receive half that increase on July 1, with the other half tied to them finishing a payroll and attendance system and providing for student attendance keeping.

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said he had been looking for alternatives after the board rejected his proposal to increase teachers’ salaries by $1,000 a month. He added that the additional money will come from federal funds, specifically the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. He said the use of those funds is temporary and will give his administration time to identify recurrent state funds to make the salary increase permanent.

Sybaris Morales Paniagua, interim general secretary for the teachers’ association, said they will make sure the increase is made permanent as part of a collective agreement still being negotiated and that they will continue to push for even higher wages. She said in a phone interview that the governor told them he also has identified funds to increase teachers’ defined contribution pension plans.

By DÁNICA COTO/The Associated Press

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Puerto Rico Rejiggers Travel Measures, Removing Negative COVID-19 Test Requirement for Vaccinated Travelers

SAN JUAN — Discover Puerto Rico, the Island’s Destination Marketing Organization (DMO), is sharing updates for U.S. inbound travelers stemming from the local government’s latest Executive Order, announced yesterday.

The order, which goes into effect on Monday, May 24th, includes modified restrictions such as the elimination of negative COVID-19 PCR molecular test requirements for fully vaccinated travelers on domestic flights and the lifting of the local curfew, which was established in March 2020.

“Puerto Rico has prioritized health and safety from the onset of the pandemic, becoming the first U.S. destination to implement an Island-wide curfew, among other measures developed to safeguard residents and visitors. As restrictions loosen, we look forward to welcoming travelers seeking to responsibly explore our Island, immerse themselves in unforgettable culture, unique natural wonders and delicious cuisine, while taking advantage of the ease of travel that comes with Puerto Rico being a U.S. territory, including no need for a passport for U.S. citizens,” said Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico.

Additional reduced restrictions include increased capacities for businesses, raised from 30 to 50 percent; the removal of a mask requirement for fully vaccinated individuals in parks and beaches; and permission to consume alcoholic beverages in pools and beaches. The reopening of the Island’s coliseums, popular for entertainment experiences, will also be permitted at 30 percent capacity, with all attendees required to present either a vaccination card, or negative antigen test to gain admission. A full overview of the revised measures and arrival requirements is available in Discover Puerto Rico’s travel guidelines.

For those travelling to Puerto Rico, the Island offers a wide array of unique attractions, with no need for a passport, currency exchange or phone plan adjustments for U.S. citizens. From a unique history infused with Spanish, Taino, and African heritages, to a booming coffee culture, and unparalleled offerings in nature including El Yunque, the only rainforest in the U.S Forest Service; three of the world’s five bioluminescent bays and stunning pink salt flats – Puerto Rico has a plethora of one-of-a-kind experiences. Exciting updates on the Island include the recent reopening of El Conquistador Resort in Fajardo and the opening of the highly anticipated Distrito T-Mobile, which is destined to be the most vibrant and popular setting for events, conventions and performances in the Caribbean region, coming later this year.

Beyond leisure travel, Puerto Rico is also a great option for those working remotely. From turquoise waves to emerald hills and electric-orange sunsets, Puerto Rico’s expansive color palette will revive, relax, and rejuvenate. The Island also has 31 internet providers and three 5G networks, critical for today’s conferencing needs, and is conveniently in Atlantic Standard Time (AST), making for a seamless remote work experience.

About Discover Puerto Rico 

Discover Puerto Rico is a newly established private, not for-profit Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) whose mission is to make Puerto Rico visible to the world as a premier travel destination. The DMO brings prosperity to the people of Puerto Rico by collaboratively promoting the Island’s diversity and uniqueness for leisure and business travel, and events. It is responsible for all global marketing, sales and promotion of the destination and works collaboratively with key local governmental and non-governmental players throughout Puerto Rico’s visitor economy and community at large, to empower economic growth. To discover all the beauty the Island has to offer, visit DiscoverPuertoRico.com.

SOURCE Discover Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico Rejiggers Travel Measures, Removing Negative COVID-19 Test Requirement for Vaccinated Travelers
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Puerto Rico To Open Vaccinations To All Amid COVID-19 Spike

SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico’s governor announced this week that officials will start vaccinating all those 16 and older beginning Monday, prompting celebrations across the U.S. territory facing a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Currently, only people 50 years and older as well as anyone 35 to 49 with chronic health conditions are authorized to receive a vaccine. More than one million vaccines have been administered since inoculations on the island of 3.2 million began in December.

“We continue to face a terrible pandemic, along with the entire world, and its consequences have been enormous,” said Governor Pedro Pierluisi.

During his first state of the territory address, Pierluisi also announced he would implement more stringent measures to fight a recent surge in COVID-19 cases. A curfew that has remained in place for more than a year was expanded again and will run from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. starting Friday. In addition, businesses will be forced to close by 9 p.m., two hours earlier than currently allowed.

“Unfortunately, as in many other jurisdictions, we are seeing a dangerous spike in COVID cases that has caused a rise in hospitalizations and deaths,” he said.

Pierluisi also announced that his administration would assign $20 million to establish a genomics surveillance program in the island’s Health Department to help officials monitor coronavirus variants and possible mutations. He said he also will set aside $1.5 million to create a digital vaccine passport, adding that people’s personal information would be protected. Details on the proposed passport were not immediately available.

The upcoming changes come as Puerto Rico reports more than 199,000 confirmed and suspected cases and more than 2,000 deaths.

Pierluisi praised the U.S. government for treating Puerto Rico fairly as he announced the island is slated to receive millions of additional dollars in federal funds to help those affected by the pandemic.

At least $50 million would go to the restaurant and bar industry, which has been hit hard by ongoing restrictions to fight the coronavirus. Bars in Puerto Rico have not been allowed to reopen for more than a year. Another $50 million would go to help clinics and private hospitals, and the same amount would be set aside for agricultural workers.

Pierluisi also announced that $250 million would be distributed as part of a special payment to first responders, nurses, medical technicians and others in the health sector who have put their lives at risk.

During the roughly hourlong address, Pierluisi made numerous other pledges, including securing statehood for Puerto Rico, improving potable water service to needy communities and building a new hospital in the nearby island of Vieques after Hurricane Maria in 2017 damaged the former one, which remains shuttered.

Those pledges were dismissed by legislators of the main opposition Popular Democratic Party, who noted that Puerto Rico has been mired in a serious economic crisis for more than a decade and one deepened by hurricanes, a string of recent earthquakes and the pandemic as it tries to restructure a portion of its more than $70 billion public debt load.

“He offered a message of dreams while the island lives a nightmare,” said José Luis Dalmau, president of Puerto Rico’s Senate.

Pierluisi also stressed he would not cancel a contract to privatize the transmission and distribution of power currently run by Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority. The contract has come under increased scrutiny amid concerns including what would happen to the thousands of government employees who work there.

Puerto Rico Rep. Rafael Hernández, also of the opposition Popular Democratic Party, said he was disappointed by that pronouncement and said he had hoped the governor would postpone the contract to study it more closely.

By DÁNICA COTO Associated Press

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Puerto Rico Has A Newly Elected Governor Named Pedro Pierluisi

SAN JUAN — Pedro Pierluisi of Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party won a majority of votes to become the U.S. commonwealth’s next governor, according to official preliminary results released late Saturday.

Pierluisi received nearly 33 percent of votes compared with nearly 32 percent obtained by Carlos Delgado of the Popular Democratic Party, which supports the current territorial status, with 100% of precincts reporting.

The results come four days after Puerto Rico held general elections, an unusual delay blamed on a record number of early and absentee votes that overwhelmed officials. It’s also the first time that Puerto Rico’s two main parties fail to reach 40 percent of votes.

“These are times to unite wills and purposes,” Pierluisi said in a statement.

Pierluisi had claimed victory the night of the election as Delgado refused to concede, noting that his opponent was leading by a very slim margin and that thousands of votes still had not been counted.

On Saturday, he congratulated Pierluisi: “The island needs consensus, dialogue and convergence so that we can face the great challenges of the future.”

Saturday’s results were released hours after U.S. President-elect Joe Biden won the election in the U.S. mainland, a victory that Pierluisi said would help Puerto Rico finally gain statehood. He congratulated Biden and said he looked forward to working with him and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris “for the benefit of all Puerto Ricans in their fight for progress and equality.”

Voters in Puerto Rico participated in a non-binding referendum the day of the local general election that asked, “Should Puerto Rico be admitted immediately into the union as a state?” More than 52 percent of voters approved, but any changes to the island’s political status needs approval from U.S. Congress. It is the island’s sixth such referendum.

Biden has promised to work with local government officials who support a variety of political status for Puerto Rico to “initiate a just and binding process” for the island to determine its own status.

Biden also promised to fight against austerity measures sought by a federal control board overseeing Puerto Rico’s finances amid an economic crisis; accelerate the disbursement of federal funds for hurricane and earthquake reconstruction; and push for equal funding of Medicaid, Medicare and Supplemental Security Income, since Puerto Rico receives less than U.S. states.

Other results released late Saturday included those of a tight race for the mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital. New Progressive Miguel Romero received more than 36 percent of votes, compared with more than 34% obtained by third-party candidate Manuel Natal of the Citizen Victory Movement. Natal rejected the results and said not all votes have been counted.

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Puerto Ricans Left Without Electricity … The Day Before Tropical Storm Isaias Is Supposed To Strike

SAN JUAN — A day before potential Tropical Storm Isaias was expected to bring rains and winds to Puerto Rico, at least 400,000 customers throughout the island were left without power.

The outage affected multiple municipalities — from cities in the metropolitan area such as San Juan and Guaynabo to the mountainous towns of Jayuya and Naranjito to the coastal town of Cabo Rojo in the southwest.

But even this morning, hours before the storm was expected to be felt across the island and people and officials prepared for its effects, an internal spat within Puerto Rico’s bankrupt electric utility company dominated early headlines.

Following Tuesday night’s outage, executives and workers for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, PREPA, could not agree on what caused the widespread blackout, as the utility’s head blamed it on “internal terrorism” and called for a federal investigation.

The renewed outrage over the island’s beleaguered electric power grid also comes after a letter from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that claimed Puerto Rico was not prepared to respond to a “major event,” according to reports from CBS News, on top of a rising number of COVID-19 cases.

Angel Figueroa Jaramillo —president of Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union, a well-known union representing PREPA workers — tweeted about the incident. The failure originally seemed to be related to a problem in a transmission line that connects both to natural gas power plant EcoElectrica and Costa Sur, one of PREPA’s main power stations.

According to Figueroa Jaramillo, the most affected municipality was Caguas, with 72,000 residents left without electricity.

Tuesday night, PREPA executive director Jose Ortiz said that they had not found the cause of the power outage, and that they continued to investigate.

“After patrolling the entire line, not a single problem was found…It’s something that’s pretty odd. We are analyzing the situation with great suspicion,” said Ortiz at a press conference.

Wednesday morning Ortiz said the power outage was caused by “human hand.” He said a box of breakers had been manipulated, which left the area between Arecibo and Isabela without system protection.

“It’s internal terrorism,” Ortiz told local radio station WKAQ. He also added there was enough evidence to involve the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to investigate the incident.

According to local newspaper El Nuevo Dia, Figueroa Jaramillo said this was impossible due to the nature of the failure in the electric grid and denied Ortiz’s reasoning for the cause of the power outage. He also called for Ortiz to submit his claims under oath.

At the time of writing, the Virgin Islands Free Press was waiting for a comment from Figueroa Jaramillo.

Puerto Ricans on social media have been critical of Ortiz’s allegations. Local TV anchor Julio Rivera-Saniel said on Twitter that it reminded him of a 2006 incident in which former PREPA executive director Edwin Rivera accused the UTIER of causing a fire in the San Juan-based power station Palo Seco.

“The FBI later concluded that that version was false,” wrote Rivera-Saniel. “The problem? Maintenance.”

On late Wednesday morning, another power outage in a transmission line in Yabucoa, was reported. Figueroa Jaramillo estimated that this new outage had left at least 33,000 without electricity, and said more could be potentially affected.

The massive power outages coincides with an active hurricane season, and highlight the fragility of Puerto Rico’s electric grid.

Hurricane Maria destroyed 80% of the island’s utility poles and left the island plunged in darkness for months. Vieques, an island municipality of the Puerto Rican archipelago, was still running on generators a year after the storm. The power outage post-Maria was considered to be the largest in the United States and second in the world after the 2013 blackout in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan.

In October, Puerto Rico revealed a $20 billion, decade long plan to fix its power grid so it could tolerate winds as strong as 160 miles per hour without damage. However, power outages — particularly in the face of natural disasters — are still common.

More recently, a powerful 6.4 earthquake in January essentially left the entire island without power and damaged power plants in the south of the island.

Arturo Deliz, an administrator in the PREPA office for disaster management told Primera Hora that the electricity company was ready to deal with the expected tropical storm that will arrive in Puerto Rico tonight.

“Thanks to the lessons learned from Maria, we understand that we are prepared to face this atmospheric phenomenon,” Deliz told the local newspaper.

Governor Wanda Vazquez, at a news conference on Tuesday night, said the storm would likely cause interruptions to electricity for consumers on the island. At the time of the conference, in which Vazquez detailed how Puerto Rico would prepare for the storm, thousands were still without power.

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Puerto Rico’s Governor Vázquez Faces Formal Corruption Probe, Impeachment

SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico’s governor and other top officials on Monday became the official targets of an in-depth government investigation into recent corruption allegations.

The U.S. commonwealth’s Special Independent Prosecutor’s Panel agreed to probe the allegations against Governor Wanda Vázquez and others following a referral from the island’s Department of Justice that ended with the dismissal of two justice secretaries earlier this month and led to calls for impeachment against the governor.

“This is very serious,” Edgardo Román, president of Puerto Rico’s College of Attorneys, told The Associated Press. “It means there are already two entities that have independently concluded there is sufficient basis to investigate a governor.”

The decision marks the first time the special panel investigates a sitting governor in recent history, he said.

The panel also will investigate four other government officials including one senator and Chief of Staff Antonio Luis Pabón.

Spokespeople for the governor and chief of staff did not immediately return messages for comment.

Former Justice Secretary Dennise Longo had issued a statement in early July saying the governor and others were the targets of an investigation that the department had launched earlier this year involving the alleged mismanagement of supplies slated for Puerto Ricans affected by a series of strong earthquakes.

Longo was fired the same day she referred the cases to the special panel. The president of that panel told the AP that someone from the Department of Justice was about to drop off files related to the cases slated for investigation but abruptly left after receiving a call from someone at the Department of Justice.

Wandymar Burgos, the justice secretary appointed after Longo was fired, later said she’s the one who demanded the cases be returned because she had just found out about them and needed to research them. Several top members of the governor’s party then demanded she resign, which she did.

Vázquez has since denied that Longo was fired in retribution for the probe. She said she asked Longo to quit because of purported interference in an unrelated federal probe into possible Medicaid fraud. Meanwhile, the governor defended Burgos, saying her actions were unusual but not illegal.

The special panel now has 90 days to investigate the allegations. Independent prosecutors can decide whether to dismiss them or opt to file charges.

The decision to investigate comes nearly three weeks before Vázquez competes in the Aug. 9 primary of the pro-statehood Progressive New Party to be its candidate for governor in the island’s general elections in November.

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COVID-19: Puerto Rico Welcomes Tourists As Virus Surge Sows Lockdown Fears

SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico officially reopened for tourists Wednesday, even as the U.S. commonwealth sees a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that threatens to undermine its early gains against the pandemic.

Incoming passengers are now required to present a recent Covid-19 test or isolate themselves for 14 days. The new rules are designed to protect the island’s fragile economy from the virus that is raging on the US mainland. But a series of grim data points suggest local efforts to control the outbreak are failing.

On Wednesday, the Health Department reported hospitalizations due to Covid-19 had hit a high for the second day in a row at 254 patients. The island of 3.2 million is also seeing rising numbers of confirmed and probable cases, with the rolling seven-day total reaching a high of 1,634 on Wednesday.

Alarmed by the surge, Governor Wanda Vazquez has warned that she will shutdown sectors of the economy again if needed.

“We will not shy away from measures if they protect the lives of our citizens,” she said during a press conference Monday. “We will not allow everything that we’ve achieved to be undone.”

Vazquez won early praise from public health officials when she imposed a curfew and shut all non-essential businesses in mid March, among the first US jurisdictions to do so. And while the Federal Aviation Administration rejected her request to shutdown incoming flights, she warned potential tourists that they weren’t welcome until the pandemic subsided.

Since then, she has allowed the economy to reopen with mandatory face-mask policies and other social-distancing measures in place. But four months into the health crisis, compliance fatigue is setting in. Local media have been full of pictures of crowded bars and beaches where the health protocols are openly flouted.

Still, she’s also under pressure to tread cautiously.

Puerto Rico’s Chamber of Commerce has warned that a broad new lockdown would be “devastating” for the bankrupt island that has been stuck in a decade-long recession. Tourism is a small but critical sector in the financially strapped commonwealth, representing about 6.5% of the economy.

“Without a doubt, without health there is no economy,” Chamber President Juan Carlos Agosto said in a statement. “But there’s also no doubt that, before any decisions are made that will impact our citizens and our businesses, we have to study and evaluate all the data on health, contagion and the economy.”

Puerto Rico’s Comeback Was Nigh, But Then the Coronavirus Came

The chamber is asking Vazquez to aim any new regulations at sectors that are showing high infection rates.

Vazquez’s handling of the crisis is under a microscope as she faces an Aug. 9 primary challenge from within her New Progressive Party.

Her rival in that race, Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s former non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, has praised her for declaring a lockdown early on, but says she has failed at everything else.

“Instead of chastising, threatening and blaming others, we should have done contact-tracing on time, produced reliable statistics and provided constructive guidance,” he wrote on Twitter earlier this week, “so we would have the information to act accordingly.”

—BLOOMBERG NEWS SERVICE

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Worsening Drought Forces State of Emergency In Puerto Rico … What Is USVI Doing?

SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico’s governor declared a state of emergency effective Monday as a worsening drought creeps across the U.S. territory amid a coronavirus pandemic.

Starting July 2, nearly 140,000 clients, including some in the capital of San Juan, will be without water for 24 hours every other day as part of strict rationing measures. Puerto Rico’s utilities company urged people to not excessively stockpile water because it would worsen the situation, and officials asked that everyone use masks and maintain social distancing if they seek water from one of 23 water trucks set up across the island.

“We’re asking people to please use moderation,” said Doriel Pagán, executive director of Puerto Rico’s Water and Sewer Authority, adding that she could not say how long the rationing measures will last.

Fernanda Ramos, a meteorologist with the U.S. National Weather Service in San Juan, said ongoing dry conditions will be interrupted by thunderstorms forecast to affect the island on Wednesday and Thursday.

“However, we are not expecting enough rain… to solve the problem we’re seeing,” she said.

More than 26% of the island is experiencing a severe drought and another 60% is under a moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Water rationing measures affecting more than 16,000 clients were imposed earlier this month in some communities in the island’s northeast region.

Gov. Wanda Vázquez said 21 of 78 municipalities are affected by the severe drought while another 29 by the moderate drought. An additional 12 municipalities face abnormally dry conditions. The worst of the drought is concentrated in Puerto Rico’s southern region, which continues to be affected by aftershocks following a 6.0-magnitude earthquake that hit in early January and caused millions of dollars in damage.

An administrative order signed Monday prohibits certain activities in most municipalities including watering gardens during daylight hours, filling pools and using a hose or non-recycled water to wash cars. Those caught face fines ranging from $250 for residents to $2,500 for industries for a first violation.

Vázquez’s announcement comes amid criticism of her administration for not dredging reservoirs, which would eliminate sediment and avoid excess loss of water. Pagán said the utilities company has been in conversation with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency since Hurricane Maria about a $300 million dredging investment. She blamed the lengthy process on the number of studies and analysis needed and that require FEMA’s approval.

The upcoming water rationing measures will affect clients who are connected to the Carraízo reservoir, one of 11 that Puerto Rico’s government operates. Pagán said that reservoir was last dredged in the late 1990s. Five other reservoirs are under a state of observation. Officials have already taken other measures, including activating water wells and transferring more than 30,000 clients from Carraízo to another reservoir.

The utilities company is restructuring a portion of its multibillion-dollar debt and had suspended all capital improvement projects, including dredging, as a result of its fiscal woes. Natalie Jaresko, executive director of a federal control board that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances amid a deep economic crisis, said Monday that up to 60% of water is wasted, lost or stolen. An upcoming project to install meters at the company’s production facilities is expected to improve the situation, and the board has approved a fiscal plan for the utilities company that calls for dredging projects. However, the company has final say on whether it will carry out those projects and what kind of funding it would use.

Puerto Rico last experienced a punishing drought five years ago that affected 2.5 million people and led to severe water rationing measures. During that time, some 400,000 utility customers received water only every third day.