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Biden administration to prioritize Puerto Rico's recovery, not political status

"We want to spend our energy and focus on doing it right, or at least attempt to do it right, rather than to be bogged down by a debate on the status," a White House official said.
The governor's mansion in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, in April 2020.Ricardo Arduengo / AFP via Getty Images file

A newly revived White House Puerto Rico task force will focus on advancing rebuilding in the U.S. territory after Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017, last year's earthquakes and the Covid-19 pandemic instead of joining the congressional debate over Puerto Rico's political status, a response to decades of tension around the fate of the island's relationship to the mainland.

"We don't have jurisdiction on status, but we do have jurisdiction on the billions of dollars that have gone to the island. And there's a real concern that these dollars might not be spent in a way that would make a real difference," Gretchen Sierra-Zorita, the White House's associate director for Puerto Rico and the territories, said Wednesday.

The federal government has allocated over $65 billion in recovery funds to Puerto Rico, but communities on the island have received only close to $21 billion, according to the Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency.

Most of the funds have been allocated to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development.

"This is such a historic opportunity to do it right at all levels and to use these resources," Sierra-Zorita said. "You don't want to have a situation where you're spending money and then, 20 or 30 years down the line, you say: 'What did we do? What did we spend that money on?'

"We want to spend our energy and focus on doing it right, or at least attempt to do it right, rather than to be bogged down by a debate on the status," she said.

The White House Working Group on Puerto Rico held its first meeting Tuesday. It was attended by a significant number of officials, including 10 members of President Joe Biden's Cabinet and four deputy agency secretaries, according to the White House.

Investing in the long-term resilience of the island and its infrastructure to ensure communities can withstand future disasters is a top priority for the task force, the White House said in a statement.

But when they consider Puerto Rico's ability to withstand future disasters, officials are also thinking about the impacts of the island's decadeslong fiscal crisis, which was triggered when U.S. laws arbitrarily excluded Puerto Rico from the federal bankruptcy code.

The move blocked the island from resolving its $72 billion debt crisis through Chapter 9 and prompted Congress to pass the PROMESA law in 2016 to create a federally appointed fiscal board responsible for restructuring the debt. The move has resulted in tough austerity measures.

Sierra-Zorita said the task force's recommended policy priorities include economic development, education and workforce development, and recovery and delivery.

"Under economic development, that's where you'll see things like the fiscal issues and job growth," she said.

In addition, under recovery and delivery, officials will focus on addressing issues limiting Puerto Rico's capacity to manage its crises.

"If you teach the island how to manage these huge amounts of funds and how to deliver these services, you're building capacity. That capacity can be transferred to other areas of government," Sierra-Zorita said. "The notion, to some extent, is to cut the dependency, not because we don't want to help, but because people don't want to be dependent. They want to manage their own affairs, and they want to be resourceful on their own."

Officials say reinstating the task force, which has existed during almost every recent administration expect former President Donald Trump's, was part of Biden's campaign promise to Puerto Ricans.

Reactivating the task force "is an expression of that commitment," Sierra-Zorita said.

Under Trump, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Peter Brown was appointed as the White House's special representative for Puerto Rico's disaster recovery, 10 months before Trump's term ended.

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