By: Eloi Colldeforns Papiol, LLM ’19
When our plane landed in San Juan, a warm breeze welcomed us. Accompanied by the evening calls of the tiny coquí frogs, an island full of natural and cultural wonders revealed itself, and we were soon embraced by the hospitality of the Boricuas.
As one of the ten J.D./LL.M. Harvard Law students participating in the Spring break pro bono trip to Puerto Rico in March 2019, I realized that I had to (partially) resist indulging in tourist pleasures. My mission was to spend four days at the Financial Oversight Management Board for Puerto Rico (FOMB) doing legal work, and I wanted to make my stay there as useful as possible.
But the FOMB, frequently referred to by some Puerto Ricans as la Junta (after its name in Spanish, Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera), is no ordinary place to work. Created in 2016 under the federal statute Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA (48 U.S.C. 20)), the FOMB is entrusted with finding a way for Puerto Rico to “achieve fiscal responsibility and access to the capital markets.” Easier said than done. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, with more than $70 billion in public debt, is facing a large debt restructuring effort, and its shrinking economy does not offer the best prospects. 40% of Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line (with an unemployment rate that more than doubles the U.S. average), access to electricity is expensive and unreliable (the street where our hostel was located had a couple of power cuts during our stay) and the island’s infrastructure was seriously affected by the devastating Hurricane María in 2017.
Revamping Puerto Rico’s economy is an overwhelming challenge for the FOMB, the Puerto Rican government and the United States in general. A challenge thus beyond the reach of a single foreign lawyer, like me, who had just tried his first—but delicious—mofongo. Being a qualified Spanish-law practitioner in Barcelona and having taken an HLS course on the Regulation of Financial Institutions were my only, very modest, credentials. I would only have four days to get to know my FOMB colleagues, become familiar with Puerto Rico’s 148-page fiscal plan, and mentally disentangle the complexities of Puerto Rico’s mixed and bilingual legal system—English for U.S. federal law, and Spanish for Puerto Rico’s civil law, which is strongly modeled after the Spanish civil code.
As if this was not enough, I was also confronted with unexpected situations. On my second day, a group of nearly twenty protesters wearing T-shirts with the face of the (late) independence activist Lolita Lebrón gathered in front of our building and a police cordon was deployed. No violence ensued, but those facts opened my eyes to a reality that I had ignored: the FOMB’s role in Puerto Rico is politically controversial.
Some perceive it as an external force that interferes with the role of democratically-elected Puerto Rican institutions. After all, while the FOMB is an entity formally ascribed to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico—as opposed to a U.S. federal agency or instrumentality—its seven members were appointed by former U.S. President Obama (six from a list provided by congressional leaders and one in his “sole discretion”). The President and the Congress are two institutions in which Puerto Ricans have no voting representation. Others, in contrast, consider the FOMB a necessary tool to address Puerto Rico’s inadmissible debt financing levels, public sector and structural deficiencies, and the only way to ensure an optimal spending of the federal funds received by the island.
This confrontation reflects a characteristic tension in Puerto Rico’s unique situation as an Estado Libre Asociado (Free Associated State, a meaning which the official term of “Commonwealth” fails to capture). This tension looms over the somewhat difficult institutional relations between the FOMB, run by its executive director Natalie Jaresko, and the Puerto Rican government, led by Governor Ricardo Rosselló.
In light of this institutional struggle, the ultimate purpose of my legal work at the FOMB was to help achieve collaboration with the Puerto Rico government. There was a clear connection between the tasks that I was assigned and the legal challenges and uncertainties that the FOMB has to resolve to fulfil its congressional mandate.
Having had the opportunity to participate, even if briefly, in the examination of key legal issues during this critical time for the future of Puerto Rico is a unique learning experience that I will never forget. Nor will I forget the people that I met at the FOMB. The members of the elite team assembled by Natalie Jaresko possess not only a superb technical expertise, but also an admirable degree of courage, determination and commitment to their mission. Extraordinary men and women who firmly believe that “Puerto Rico will shine again,” as the banner outside their office reminds them every day. And so, when my fourth—and final—day arrived, I left the FOMB with the feeling that I had been in the right place, at the right time.
Puerto Ricans have a saying, friendo y comiendo (i.e., frying while eating), which figuratively means that some things must be done right away, without excessive consideration. They know exactly when to apply this philosophy, and so did the FOMB with my integration process. I was treated like one of their own family since the very first day. Special thanks go to Sebastián Negrón for making this collaboration possible, and to my FOMB colleague Jean-Carlos “JC” García-Rosa, for his unconditional help and friendship.
This friendo y comiendo philosophy allowed me not only to work on legal issues of relevance to the FOMB, but also to have a coffee with Alejandro García Padilla, the former Governor of Puerto Rico, and Emiliano Trigo-Fritz, who worked closely with him when he was in office, but currently advises the FOMB. I was also invited by my colleague JC to teach a Corporations class at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón, where he is a lecturer.
The last days of this unforgettable Spring break trip rewarded me with other memorable experiences, like the visit of the communities around the Caño Martín Peña that were affected by Hurricane María, an afternoon hike in the beautiful El Yunque rainforest and the discovery of the Playa Flamenco in Culebra island and its turquoise waters.
Gracias, Puerto Rico, ¡y hasta siempre!