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Puerto Rican Diaspora Summit II: An Overwhelming Success


This past weekend, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies hosted Diaspora Summit II as part of its ‘Puerto Rico, Puerto Rican’ series. Hundreds attended the two-day event, which was held at the Silberman School of Social Work in East Harlem.

Day One was centered on the theme of ‘Understanding’ the crisis in Puerto Rico, which now encompasses not only economic woes, but a litany of humanitarian issues. In his opening presentation, Dr. Edwin Meléndez, Centro Director, provided a thorough overview of the crisis in Puerto Rico. From the stark economic reality, “Without economic growth, we're going nowhere fast,” to evolving perceptions of the Puerto Rican diaspora, “We can no longer sustain the island-centric view of the Puerto Rican people,” Dr. Meléndez set the stage for the opening plenary panel; while also reaffirming the role of Centro in the solidarity movement, “What can Centro do to help? Give us feedback.”

Health care and the debt restructuring process initiated by Title III of Promesa were some of the more pressing topics during the early part of the day. “We must continue to demand health care parity [on Medicaid],” said Gretchen Sierra-Zorita, Media Diversity, National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, during the first plenary planel; a sentiment echoed by Dennis Rivera, Chair, Service Employees International Union-Healthcare, who added that not only the government, but the court system should address some of the impending consequences on healthcare, childhood poverty, and other humanitarian issues faced by those on the island.

Eric LeCompte, Executive Director, Jubilee USA, went on to discuss the creditors of Puerto Rico’s debt, “Creditors [and] lobbyists were doing everything they could to stop Title III,” before suggesting that a principle haircut, similar to that of the 1953 London Accord, would be a possible option.

During the first set of concurrent panels, journalist and co-host of "Democracy Now!" Juan González made a similar historical comparison by referencing the Control Board appointed to manage the District of Columbia in the 1990s. However, in the case of Puerto Rico, he asserted, “[This] is the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history and its ramifications could be far reaching.” González cited the implications for pension systems if the health insurer Ambac collapses as a result of the debt restructuring process. The company has $169 million in just the first quarter of 2017, with the example of Puerto Rico most likely to set a precedent that would materially and adversely impact municipal debt markets in the future—not to mention a Wall Street Journal report that estimates losses of $5.4 billion for mutual funds invested in Puerto Rico's debt in the past five years.

There was also discussion of the Marshall Plan, an aid package which helped Western Europe rebuild in the wake of World War II. "This is about transforming a nation-state,” said Carlos Cuevas, esq, Research Associate, University of Houston School of Law. He went on to categorize the economic crisis in Puerto Rico as a civil rights issue, “Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy fight is our Brown vs. Board of Education”; later adding, "If you don't have economic rights, you're not a person in this country." Indeed, many of the panelists framed the Puerto Rican debt crisis within a much larger historical context, one that went beyond comparisons to the recent economic meltdowns in Argentina and Greece (watch the full Q&A of this panel session here). 

The conference also provided attendees with a panoramic view of the resources available via the diaspora, including cultural, political, and other institutions around the country in places like Chicago, Central Florida, and New England. Once again, Centro provided a forum for the diaspora to meet and forge new partnerships, especially during the breaks between panels where lively discussions spilled into the lobby—often running over the allotted time scheduled. And despite the many views shared among the Puerto Rican community, there were frequent calls for unity. As Lorraine Cortés, CUNY Trustee and Board Chairperson of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade, stated, “Use your voice, but not to attack each other.” This was complemented by calls to action, or as Natasha Otero-Santiago, founder, Parranda Puerto Rico, explained, "We need to do more than baile, botella y baraja”. 

Long term solutions were also established as a significant talking point throughout the first day of the conference. This boded well for the second day of the conference, which was centered on  the theme of ‘Engagement’. Despite the inclement weather, (a scheduled walking tour of East Harlem had to be cancelled) hundreds arrived to continue the discussion of the crisis in Puerto Rico, and more specifically, the role of the diaspora. Purchasing power, for instance, was one suggestion rooted in Dr. Meléndez’s opening presentation that gained traction throughout the conference. "Can we inject that money into the island?” he asked. Perhaps an afterthought in the midst of an economic crisis, purchasing power among the stateside community had reached over $100 billion in 2015 alone, with Puerto Rican-owned businesses growing 13.6% from 2002-2012. These indicators could be found in The State of Puerto Ricans, 2017, which was released by the CENTRO Press to coincide with the Diaspora Summit II (a preview of the book in PDF format is available here).

There was also an action fair was held in which attendees could learn more about the hundreds of organizations which serve Puerto Rican communities throughout the country. In addition, the Library & Archives hosted an Open House, which included the recent exhibit on Puerto Rican bodegas in the 1950s and 60s and archival materials on the National Puerto Rican Day Parade.

From there, panelists provided creative, legal, religious, LGBT, academic, and other perspectives on what the diaspora should be doing to aid Puerto Rico in the midst of the crisis. The panels on the ‘Creative Network of the Puerto Rican Diaspora’ and the ‘Legal System and Puerto Rico’  were particularly engaging, as the debate generated both tension and solidarity. In the end, panelists such as Anthony Suarez, Puerto Rican Bar Association of Orlando (FL), reaffirmed the initial aim of the summit, “We [the diaspora] have to be advocates for and the voice of Puerto Rico.” From that standpoint, the conference was an overwhelming success, with many attendees expressing gratitude via social media for the opportunity to convene with likeminded colleagues and share what they learned over the course of two days. 

The Center of Puerto Rican Studies will continue to play a crucial role in helping to organize the diaspora, while providing non-partisan resources for understanding and engaging the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico. Stay tuned for upcoming events as we continue our ‘Puerto Rico, Puerto Rican’ series, as well as video recaps and more of Diaspora Summit II.