Puerto Rico's Financial Oversight Board Chair Frustrated With Local Politicians
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Adrian, you and I spoke with the chair of the oversight board, Jose Carrion III. And I started our conversation by asking him just how he saw his role here.
JOSE CARRION III: Yeah, I think that the board was viewed as an empty vessel by many people in Puerto Rico. Some folks saw it as the - you know, the folks who are going to bring discipline to certain sectors of our government. Other folks saw it as a vessel to exclusively restructure debt. Everybody saw something different. And so we have folks who are supportive, although those folks tend to be more private. And we haven't and won't see marches in favor of fiscal discipline. But we do have our fair share of supporters, many detractors who would prefer that things remain the way they are.
MARTIN: I think it's important for people to remember that these fiscal realities were in play before the hurricanes. So it's almost as if you had a patient who had cancer, and then he broke his leg.
MARTIN: You know, you had an ongoing problem, and then an emergency struck. I find myself, you know, wondering for you, as a person who was born here, who grew up here...
CARRION: Who was here through the hurricane.
MARTIN: You were here through the hurricane? You stayed?
CARRION: Oh, yeah. I'm in the insurance business.
MARTIN: What's this like for you? I mean, is this painful? Do you feel that you are - is this - I don't know, do you see this as kind of your service to your...
MARTIN: ...People? or...
CARRION: I find myself, depending on the day - I have good days, I have bad days like, like most people. But, ultimately and most of all, I feel grateful for the opportunity to serve my people. This is my opportunity to serve. Had I accepted the job - had I known what it would entail, I probably would have, you know, maybe thought about it twice. I honestly didn't give it too much thought. It's extremely difficult. It's extremely difficult.
What do I feel? I feel sadness at the situation that we've gotten ourselves into. And, the more I deal with politicians, I feel frustration, and I feel sometimes anger. But also, I look at efforts that are underway and the way that our people have reacted to the storm and have come together, and I feel hope.
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: You mentioned your frustration with politicians who are elected officials. Can you expand on that a little bit? What is it about working with politicians that frustrates you?
CARRION: Well, I - not all politicians, let me - I don't want to - but I can say that many politicians think they understand the magnitude of the problem. They understand that we have material debt, and they understand the need for restructuring, and they understand that we have to pay X or whatever.
But the solutions - they - for example, many don't understand the differences between fiscal and structural reforms. And many of them are, frankly, just interested in, you know, their own, you know, salvation - their own particular re-election and whatever that means to them - you know, or their own budget. Not all - but I've had a difficulty explaining - and I'm referring to our local politicians.
FLORIDO: When D.C. came under the control of an oversight board back in the '90s, there were issues there that were similar to the issues that you're facing here in terms of the resistance, right? One of the things that the mayor said after the whole process was over was that the fact that the oversight board was not elected allowed it to do things that he would have wanted to do but never could have because of his constituency. Do you see the fact that you aren't elected as a benefit?
CARRION: That is precisely what control boards are supposed to do - undertake difficult considerations that are politically unpalatable and precisely the reason why they had not been made for several - for years. And then the government is supposed to implement and - you know, and do what needs to be done. And the ire of the folks - which it's natural - is supposed to fall upon, you know, the control board. That has not been entirely the case here in Puerto Rico, and that's a shame.
MARTIN: What do you most wish people in Puerto Rico knew that you aren't sure they know? And what do you most wish people on the mainland knew that you're not sure that they know?
CARRION: We want - we all want for people to do better and to do well. And we want there to be sustainable economic development in Puerto Rico. What we're trying to do is promote those policies. And to do so - because I keep on going back to the - that quote by Einstein. And I don't want to - you know, if you - insanity is the definition of doing the same thing over and hoping for a different outcome.
MARTIN: There've been some really tragic outcomes with decisions that were made by oversight boards. I mean, in Flint, Mich., for example, people who were...
CARRION: The water, yeah.
MARTIN: ...Involved in the oversight board were deemed to have been the reason that the water became poisoned - because they made decisions for fiscal reasons...
MARTIN: ...As opposed to for the - quality-of-life reasons.
CARRION: Yes. I mean, I - we're not saints and, you know, we need to be - there are plenty of folks who are watching us, and that's a good thing. We need to be held accountable, of course. I understand that. However, this is extremely difficult work. It's the most difficult thing I've ever done. We are, as we say down here, (speaking in Spanish) - we are the ham in the ham sandwich.
Everybody is pressuring us one way or the other, depending on the day. There are multiple stakeholders, and some folks have material resources and have friends up north who are - you know, have their friends. And we feel that. Here, we feel every day, you know, the pressures of certain folks. I'm approached, you know, at the airport in my seat. You know, I have police protection. I've had my office - what the - what's the technical term? - intervened by protesters.
It's difficult work. I have my days. It can be very rewarding work, and I think that we're getting close to a solution. And I think that that makes it all worthwhile.
MARTIN: Jose Carrion III is the chair of the financial oversight and management board here in Puerto Rico. He was kind enough to receive us in his offices in San Juan, and we spoke - he spoke with me and with my colleague Adrian Florido. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
CARRION: It's my pleasure. Thank you. Thank you for coming. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.