NOTE: This article has been edited. A previous version stated that Puerto Rico's Medicare Advantage payments were cut by 11 percent. While this was planned, this cut never occured.
Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion, is, as "West Side Story’s" Anita sang, “sink[ing] back into the ocean” – that is, according to mainstream media. The Caribbean island is drowning in an unpayable $70 billion debt. While news outlets report on Congress’ substandard rescue packages or what the escalating economic crisis means for creditors and hedge funds, the 3.5 million Puerto Ricans on the island face the reality of living in a U.S. colony: a health care crisis, schools diminishing, thousands fleeing, homelessness rising, gentrification swelling and drug addiction increasing as services for sufferers drop.
Though “La Isla del Encanto” only seems to be mentioned these days in terms of economic bailouts and missed payments, there’s a humanitarian crisis razing the Caribbean paradise that consists of so much more.
1. Zika Virus: Puerto Rico has 925 confirmed cases of Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that, if contracted during pregnancy, can cause a birth defect characterized by a shrunken head and incomplete brain development called microcephaly. The island has confirmed Zika infections in 18 pregnant women, and at least one confirmed case of microcephaly caused by the virus. Twenty-seven Puerto Rican patients infected with Zika have gotten so ill that they needed medical attention, and one man has died.
2. Drug Addiction: Puerto Rico is facing a severe drug epidemic. The island is an alluring target for South American drug traffickers moving narcotics to its biggest consumer nation: the United States. Dealers can easily transport cargo to one of Puerto Rico’s many ports or beaches, where it can be moved into the U.S. without customs interference. According to Narconon, an estimated 1,400 metric tons of cocaine reaches the island every year, and about 30 percent of it is consumed on the island. More than 70 thousand of the just 3.5 million people of Puerto Rico are drug addicts, most of whom hooked on opiate. As drug addiction escalates, services and treatment for those suffering are dwindling. Turned away by hospitals, most addicts depend on nonprofits like Iniciativa Comunitaria, which offer services like detox and drug treatment, but the government has cut their funding by 20 percent, leaving the group with fewer staff, supplies and time to do their crucial work.
3. Health Care: U.S. territories, like Puerto Rico, receive much less in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, even though almost 70 percent of Puerto Ricans rely on these programs for their health insurance. This leads to pricier copays and loss of benefits for a population that has a 12.2 percent unemployment rate and a 45 percent poverty rate – all this in the midst of the island's Zika battle and drug epidemic.
4. Gun Violence: At 91 percent, Puerto Rico has the highest overall percentage of homicides by firearms than any other country in the world. Still, as Vice reports, the NRA has set up shop on the island, pushing for greater gun rights instead of much-needed control. In 2014, gun permits on the island doubled, possession tripled and licenses for shooting ranges quadrupled.
5. Homelessness: Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans flee their island in hopes of opportunities in the U.S. each year. But for many other thousands, plane tickets to a faraway land aren’t a possibility. According to Fox News Latino, homelessness rates have doubled in five years, and with 26 thousand mortgage executions expected this year, the number of Puerto Ricans on the street will undoubtedly rise by the end of 2016.
6. Gentrification: As tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans leave the island for the mainland U.S. and thousands more find themselves kicked out of their homes and on the streets, super rich Americans are flying to Puerto Rico ready to buy up abandoned homes and businesses. As the author of “War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony" Nelson A. Denis told MintPress News, "What you’re seeing then, if this is allowed to continue unchecked, is the gentrification of an entire island."
7. Education: This push for privatization on the island has resulted in the Puerto Rican government closing about 10 percent of its schools since 2014, and new laws are requiring that some 400 additional institutions also shut down. The island’s debt crisis isn’t helping the problem, either. Hedge funds are recommending that Puerto Rico close even more schools as well as reduce university subsidies and fire its teachers in an effort to repay their debt.