A recently revived White House task force in Puerto Rico will focus on advancing reconstruction efforts on U.S. soil following Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017, last year’s earthquakes, and the United States. Covid-19 pandemic instead of joining the ongoing debate in Congress over Puerto Rico’s political status. one that responds to decades of tensions around the fate of the island’s relationship with the mainland.
“We don’t have jurisdiction over the status, but we do have jurisdiction over the billions of dollars that have gone to the island. And there is a real concern that those dollars are not being spent in a way that would make a real difference. difference, “White House associate director for Puerto Rico and the Territories Gretchen Sierra Zorita told NBC News Wednesday.
The federal government has allocated more than $ 65 billion in stimulus funds to Puerto Rico, but the island’s communities have only received nearly $ 21 billion, according to the Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Recovery. resilience.
Most of the funds have been allocated to FEMA, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, and the Ministry of Education.
“This is a historic opportunity to do things right at all levels and to use these resources,” said Sierra Zorita. “You don’t want to have a situation where you spend money and then 20 or 30 years later you say, what have we done? What did we spend this money on?”
“We want to spend our energy and focus on doing it right, or at least trying to do it right, rather than getting bogged down in a status debate,” she added.
The White House task force on Puerto Rico held its first meeting on Tuesday. A significant number of officials attended, including 10 members of 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 examining Puerto Rico’s ability to withstand future disasters, officials also think of the impacts of the decades-long fiscal crisis on the island, which was sparked after US laws arbitrarily excluded Puerto. Rico of the Federal Bankruptcy Code.
The move prevented the island from resolving its $ 72 billion debt crisis through Chapter 9 and prompted Congress to pass the PROMESA Act in 2016 to create a federally appointed tax council responsible for debt restructuring. . This decision resulted in severe austerity measures.
Sierra Zorita said the policy priorities currently recommended by the task force include economic development, education and workforce development, as well as recovery and delivery.
“As part of economic development, this is where you will see things like tax problems and job growth,” she said.
Additionally, as part of the recovery and delivery, officials will focus on resolving issues limiting Puerto Rico’s ability to handle ongoing crises.
“If you teach the island how to manage these huge sums of money and provide these services, you build capacity. This capacity can be transferred to other areas of government, ”Sierra Zorita said. “The idea, to a certain extent, is to reduce dependency, not because we don’t want to help, but because people don’t want to be dependent. They want to run their own business and they want to be resourceful on their own. clean.”
Officials say the reestablishment of the White House task force in Puerto Rico, which has existed under almost every recent administration except that of former President Donald Trump, was part of Biden’s campaign promise to Puerto Ricans.
For Sierra Zorita, the reactivation of the working group “is an expression of this commitment,” she said.
Under Trump, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Peter Brown was appointed White House Special Representative for Puerto Rico Disaster Recovery, 10 months before Trump’s term expired.
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