Puerto Rico is in dire financial straights, and on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver exposed some of the strange and dishonest dealings that have pushed the U.S. commonwealth to the brink of insolvency. Over $80 billion in debt, and long suffering from a crisis of manufacturing over the past two decades, Puerto Rico has contributed some of the world’s best-known artists, celebrities and minds. But now, few on the mainland are treating the island’s problems like anything over than a topic of conversation.
Oliver goes beyond mourning the debt, and sheds light on Congress’ long history of crafting legal exemptions which apply only to Puerto Rico, contributing to the current crisis. Some of these loopholes have attracted business, like a ‘70s incentive for factories to move to the island, resulting in a boom of chemical manufacturing on the island, but has since been removed. And others have no basis in precedent — or fairness. For one, Congress singled out Puerto Rican municipal bonds for triple tax-exempt status, meaning the island’s loans would not be subject to federal, state, or local taxes. The program brought in a lot of cheap money, but at some point, all those IOUs come up past due, and Puerto Rico is now facing a lot of angry and powerful creditors, including hedge funds.
Congress also exempted Puerto Rico from bankruptcy protections in the 1980s. The late racist Senator from South Carolina, Strom Thurmond, introduced the legislation, and no one has been able to figure out why. Oliver even hired someone at the university that keeps Thurmond’s paper to investigate the matter, and the researcher turned up nothing. The law means Puerto Rico could face a complete catastrophe if forced into bankruptcy, but the island also is confronted by school closures, Medicaid cuts and even power outages in its hospitals from the lack of cash. All Puerto Ricans may be American citizens, but so far, Congress has turned a blind eye.
But if there is one performer who members of Congress cannot ignore, it’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. The writer and lead-performer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning broadway musical Hamilton, detailing the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, is of Puerto Rican descent, and has made alleviating the island’s suffering a goal of his enhanced celebrity. He has advocated before Congress, even offering members tickets to the hit show if they would just help his home island.
“Wow,” Oliver responds. “That is incredible, cause I’m surprised even he can get tickets,” adding, “It is easier for a meerkat to get into Harvard Law School than it is to get into that show.”
Oliver’s monologue on the crisis in Puerto Rico is powerful and explanatory, but at the end, he concedes his might not be the best voice to bring attention to the island’s plight.
Miranda himself then appeared to drop a few rhymes on the need for Congress to help Puerto Rico address its debt:
It’s non-partisan. The hard part is convincing Congress Puerto Rico matters, so their heart is in the fight for relief, not a bailout, just relief.
A belief that you can pass legislation to ease our grief.
Paul Ryan, I’ll come sing Hamilton at your house. I’ll do-si-do with Pelosi. I’ll wear my Hamilton blouse.
Your citizens are suffering, stop the bleeding, stop the loss. Help Puerto Rico, its just 100 miles across.
Check it out.