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'Forced Exile,' Say Puerto Ricans Leaving Island Amid Financial Crisis

More professionals are reluctantly leaving Puerto Rico as the financial crisis deepens.
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Victor Rodríguez never thought it would come to this; next month he, his wife and their five children are moving to Connecticut leaving their beloved island –Puerto Rico - in the rearview mirror.

He and his wife, Dr. Yolanda Pagán, a renowned rheumatologist, live an otherwise happy existence in a luxurious home in a tony suburb of San Juan. But together they decided life on the island had become unsustainable.

“We are all so sad. We are proud to be Puerto Rican,” said Rodríguez, a corporate attorney, via telephone. “We don’t have much choice at this point but we tried to hang on as long as we could.”

Rodríguez and his family are set to become part of the largest migration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland United States since the end of World War II. The Pew Research Center puts population losses on the island at nine percent over the last decade.

But is the wave of professionals leaving the island that is cause for great concern, says Héctor Cordero Guzmán of Baruch College in New York.

“The island has made an investment in the form of their education but won’t reap the rewards of that,” he said. “These migrants will spend their most productive years off the island and they take their economic activity with them.”

Cordero Guzmán went on to explain that the greatest loss will be in the form of innovators and professionals who could eventually help pull the island out of economic distress by starting businesses and contributing to long-term economic growth.

A report on migration patterns released by the Puerto Rican commonwealth shows that over the last four years about 12,000 people in the professional class – doctors, lawyers, educators, health care workers – have left the island.

The thought of adding to that number of professionals who have already left unsettles Rodríguez. But he said it came after careful deliberation. “We needed to do what was best for our family as a whole. We don’t want to leave.”

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Rodríguez pointed to his attempts to reinvent himself and his work; in 2008 he left Exxon Mobil when the company divested from some of its major projects on the island — projects he was overseeing.

In late 2008, he and a few colleagues opened up their own law firm where his specialty was environment and renewable energy. The practice was going well until about late 2012 when new business and investment on the island slowed. That, coupled with a much more bureaucratic permit process for new businesses seeking to make investment on the island only complicated matters, he explained.

Over the next three years, he struggled to maintain enough business to justify his practice. “In my area specifically – renewable energy – the volume of projects dropped some 50 percent,” he said, disappointed. “A lot of companies decided to hold off making investments in Puerto Rico or simply decided they wouldn’t expand existing business.”

Six months ago he decided his part of the corporate practice wasn’t economically viable anymore. He joined his wife’s medical practice to help her sort through piles of unpaid insurance claims, but he quickly found it was an uphill battle.

Just last week, Dr. Pagán tearfully said goodbye to her patients. The mother of five said the island is the only place she ever called home and where she expected to raise her family; she’s leaving the island in June to become a director of medical research at Yale. The prolonged recession and economic crisis pushed them to the breaking point.

"I held out as long as I could but the crisis has made my practice unsustainable," she said. As the financial crisis has deepened, insurance claims are not being paid, said Pagán.

As a solo practitioner, absorbing the cost without adequate reimbursement became untenable.

"I am going to miss everything about Puerto Rico," she said, holding back tears. "This is a forced exile."

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