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Voices: While History Is Made in Cuba, What About Puerto Rico?

As President Barack Obama addressed the Cuban people directly in a nationwide televised speech Tuesday during his historic visit, there were Puerto Ricans asking themselves why Washington neglects Puerto Rico and has left the island to teeter on the brink of bankruptcy as a "real estate deal gone badly."

"I have come here to bury the last remnants of the Cold War," Obama declared at the Gran Teatro in Havana, to an audience of 11 million Cubans on the island, and about 1.6 million Cuban Americans in the United States. "The future of Cuba must be in the hands of Cubans," he said.

Puerto Rico's Debt: Why Bankruptcy Isn't an Option 2:03

At much the same time, in Washington, Puerto Rico set out to make its case before the U.S. Supreme Court, fighting for the validity of the "quiebra criolla" - a bankruptcy law enacted by the Puerto Rican legislature to deal with the island's public corporations, which account for almost a third of the staggering debt that buckles the island and threatens its future.

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This September 23, 2014 photo, shows an aerial view of the Santurce neighborhood in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Ricardo Arduengo / AP

Congress and the Puerto Rican government are grappling with how to arrive at a workable and sustainable solution to the island's dire economic situation, one that avoids a unilaterally imposed federal control board favored by many in the Republican-led Congress and the financial industry. The island's answer and its own model is the "quiebra criolla." Two bills were filed last year to allow Puerto Rico to file for Chapter 9 restructuring but they have languished in Congress.

Puerto Ricans are living the worst economic and fiscal crisis of its history. Due to excessive borrowing, the island tripled its debt in the last 12 years - going from roughly $24 billion to $70 billion and now faces a budget gap of more than 20 billion. To make matters worse, a more than 12 percent unemployment has depleted the island of its human capital, a population decline that exceeds the 1950's Great Migration.

The contrast of the different paths now facing Puerto Rico and Cuba - the two Spanish-speaking countries colonized by the United States - is not lost on many Puerto Ricans.

"Cuba y Puerto Rico son de un pájaro, las dos alas."
"Cuba y Puerto Rico son de un pájaro, las dos alas." / "Cuba and Puerto Rico are two wings of a bird." Cartoon by artist Rangely Garcia posted to this Facebook page and Instagram, @radrangy. Rangely Garcia / 'De La Nada' Facebook Page, @radrangy on Instagram

Richard Carrión, chairman and chief executive of Banco Popular, the largest banking institution on the island, said that Washington sees Puerto Rico as "a real estate deal gone badly; a marriage of convenience that has gone sour."

"The very people that can be the most helpful (with this new relationship with Cuba) are in Puerto Rico and the United States has not availed itself of that."

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"A trip to Cuba is a lot more fun than taking care of your colony," Carrión said.

"I cannot help but contrast this (Obama in Cuba) with the prostrate position Puerto Rico finds itself in now. There is a legally constituted government, colonial as it may be, and yet no one heeds its calls for the economic yoke to be lifted," said Rich Villar, a Cuban-Puerto Rican poet and activist.

Luquillo beach
FILE PHOTO: Benjamin Gautier leaves the water with his surfboard on Luquillo beach, 15 miles to the east of San Juan, Puerto Rico, October 19, 2003. WALTER ASTRADA / AP

Federico Rodríguez, a Puerto Rican human rights expert living in Laos, explained Washington's priorities in attending to Cuba first, in light of the crisis facing Puerto Rico.

"As for Puerto Rico, the territory has always been pretty much off the radar in the mainland US. The island may have beauty queens, famous stars and athletes but it is a lightweight when it comes to competing with Cuba for attention. It doesn't hold the same fascination, obsession, or perceived "threat"," he said. "It has not been a stubborn enemy who has refused to bend its knees for almost 60 years."

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"The Cold War was thought to be over and Cuba was expected to fall. It did not. Instead Puerto Rico fell, and has been ignored by Congress," said Dr. Harry Franqui Rivera, historian at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies of Hunter College.

"I could not be happier for the thaw in Cuban-American relations, but Puerto Rico deserves the same. After all, Puerto Rico played along and was instrumental in winning the Cold War. It is time for the U.S. government to return the favor," he said.

"A question remains, what will happen with Puerto Rico? Will the administration move strongly to solve the debt and humanitarian crisis? More importantly, will the perennial status question be solved? Will Puerto Rico come center stage in American politics or will it continue to exist as an unfinished chapter of both the post-war decolonization struggles and the Cold War."

It was one hundred years ago that Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodriguez de Tió wrote that "Puerto Rico and Cuba are the two wings of a bird." Now Cuba flies high as Obama listens directly to the Cuban people, while the fate of Puerto Rico hangs in the balance.

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