Lin-Manuel Miranda: Give Puerto Rico Its Chance to Thrive


Screenshot 2016-06-08 13.01.59On Aug. 31, 1772, a hurricane devastated the island of St. Croix, the home of the teenage Alexander Hamilton. In a letter one week later, he described the force of the storm and the destruction it caused as “sufficient to strike astonishment into angels.” His letter included this plea for help for his countrymen: “O ye, who revel in affluence, see the afflictions of humanity and bestow your superfluity to ease them. Say not, we have suffered also, and thence withhold your compassion. What are your sufferings compared to those? Ye have still more than enough left. Act wisely. Succour the miserable and lay up a treasure in Heaven.” So vivid was his account of the disaster that the letter was published in a newspaper in the Virgin Islands, The Royal Danish American Gazette, and used to support relief efforts for the island. I’m invoking Hamilton’s words today, in this plea for relief for Puerto Rico. Much has been said about the dire economic situation pressing down on Puerto Rico. I am the son of Puerto Rican parents. What can I say to persuade elected officials and policy makers to act? What influence do I have to change the minds and hearts of those in Congress to put aside their differences and deal with the crisis confronting 3.5 million American citizens in the Caribbean? I’m not a politician or an economist. I’m a storyteller. More than 150 schools on the island have closed. San Jorge Children’s Hospital, Puerto Rico’s largest pediatric hospital, has been forced to close two wings and 40 rooms, and cannot afford to hire the nurses it needs. It’s estimated that a doctor a day leaves the island. Engineers, accountants, blue-collar workers and entire families are emigrating daily. According to the census, Puerto Rico has lost 9 percent of its population in the last decade, with 84,000 leaving last year alone. This is not the Puerto Rico I remember. Every summer my sister Luz and I stayed with our grandparents in Vega Alta, a small town on the northern coast. My grandfather managed the town credit union — a real-life George Bailey if ever there was one. My grandmother owned a travel agency, Viajes Miranda. My aunt Yamilla owned the school supply store next door, and I sold candy to returning students in August. In Vega Alta, I was “el nene de Luisito, que se fue a Nueva York” (“The son of Luisito, who left for New York”) but welcomed every summer as a cherished member of the community, despite my halting Spanglish. I walked from one end of town to the other, waving at the business owners, many of whom went to church with my grandparents, feeling a sense of community that often eluded me back in New York. Today, most of those storefronts — the school supply shop, the travel agency and many more — are boarded up, with little hope of housing new businesses. Residents like the town’s mayor, Isabelo Molina, and my uncle Elvin, who heads a Pentecostal church there, are working hard to change that. They have learned to stretch a dollar as far as it can go. But Puerto Rico’s $72 billion debt, which is equal to about 68 percent of the island’s gross domestic product, thwarts efforts for economic development. There are remedies when governments run up debt. If Puerto Rico were an American city, it could declare bankruptcy, as Detroit did in 2013. If it were a state, the federal government would surely have already declared emergency measures to help the most vulnerable. But since it is a territory of the United States, there is no system in place to handle the financial and humanitarian crisis that is happening right now. Please let us not get bogged down in Puerto Rico’s status. If a ship is sinking, you don’t ask, “Well, what type of ship is it and what type of ship should it be?” You rescue the people aboard. What Puerto Rico needs, as a first step, is what almost any other company or government has — the ability to restructure its debt. Congress can make that happen. The island is in danger of defaulting on some of its larger loans and it is already being sued by creditors. An act of Congress in support of restructuring would help bring creditors to the table to develop a workable plan that could satisfy debtholders and relieve the punishment of the people of Puerto Rico. This is not a Republican issue. This is not a Democratic issue. This is an American issue. When 3.5 million of our citizens face the consequences of financial collapse, we should act. Because Puerto Ricans can vote neither for the president nor for congressional representatives, it falls to us of Puerto Rican heritage in the continental United States to amplify their plea. By chance, I picked up Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton in 2008 and found the inspiration that changed my life. I recognized, in Hamilton’s ability to write his way out of his difficult circumstances, a kindred spirit. I write about Puerto Rico today just as Hamilton wrote about St. Croix in his time. Congress, please don’t play politics with the lives of 3.5 million Americans. Succor the miserable and lay up a treasure in heaven. We are counting on you.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a composer, librettist, actor and the creator of “Hamilton” and “In the Heights.” This article originally appeared in the New York Times, March 28, 2016