(links and photos on our blog)
I’ve been reluctant to discuss the Puerto Rican government debt crisis and it’s effects because, frankly, there’s really not much for me to say. We’ve noticed little that’s changed in the year since we’ve arrived. If anything, we seem to see MORE economic activity around our neck of the woods, with new restaurants and food stands opening up all the time on the Cam Playa and elsewhere in Aguada.
That said, I know from direct messages and other reader feedback that some of you are grapping with the same question that Holly and I grappled with 3 years ago:
Should you call off your move to Puerto Rico because of the debt crisis?
Of course, I would not be so presumptuous as to even try to answer this question FOR you. What I can do, however, is share how we thought through this with the hope that it’s helpful to those of you who are now in the same boat we were in.
Although the Puerto Rican government debt crisis has escalated in the time we’ve been here, with several mini-defaults followed by an historic default on constitutionally guaranteed debt earlier this month, we can’t say any of this is a surprise. Even back in 2013, when we first started kicking around the idea of a move, the news coming out of Puerto Rico was dire and it was pretty obvious some sort of default would be inevitable.
The first thing Holly and I did was to remind ourselves that with crisis often comes opportunity. For example, the Individual Investors Act (Act 22), which put Puerto Rico on our radar in the first place, is a direct result of the government trying to come up with solutions to the debt crisis. Another example is real estate. If you want to own your own piece of paradise here in Puerto Rico like we did, the best time to buy is when more want out than want in. (I would imagine the same could be said to some extent for those who want to rent as well) Sure we may have to endure some bumps in the road, but I believe we will find the investment to be well worth it in the long run .
This brings me to my next point. As I said, Holly and I were bombarded with negative press coverage of the Puerto Rico debt crisis as we were planning our move. We had to remind ourselves to take the sensationalistic articles we read with a grain of salt. Fear sells. Doom and gloom gets eyeballs. Despite the headlines, Puerto Rico is not going to sink into the Caribbean sea. The sunsets on the beaches will continue to amaze. The unique culture and vibe that so many us love about this island will continue to evolve and thrive as it has for centuries.
That said, we didn’t want to stick our heads in the sand and end up blindsided by something we should’ve seen coming. Before our move, we did our best to think through possible worst-case scenarios so we could rationally assess them and look for opportunities to insulate ourselves from their effects should they play out. Below I list the main debt crisis risks we thought might be possible and our thinking around each one. If there are other somewhat plausible scenarios you can think of that we overlooked, please share in the comments!
Riots break out at government buildings
This could happen as the result of any number of possible outcomes. A massive layoff of government employees. Broken promises to pensioners / bondholders. Protests against unpopular legislation. Regardless of the impetus for any such demonstrations, there is also the knock-on risk of a heavy-handed government response.
Our personal decision around this was to simply rule out living in the capital city of San Juan, since I imagine it would be ground zero for this type of scenario. We don’t like traffic and crowds anyways, so this was a fairly easy choice for us.
A hungry, restive population resorts to looting
Humans can tolerate many indignities for surprisingly long periods of time, but hunger is not one of them. The saying (paraphrased) “there are only nine meals between civility and savagery” conjures up images of roving gangs driven to crime by an empty stomach.
Our thinking was that this apocalyptic scenario is less likely to happen in a place where tropical fruit trees, including staples such as breadfruit, bananas, and coconut, grow in abundance, the surrounding seas are teeming with fish and shellfish, and the ever-present risk of hurricanes means most families have some food and water stored up for emergencies. Further, thinking about this only solidified our personal decision to avoid moving to a heavily populated urban area and instead, move to a more “country” area where most of our neighbors have gardens.
Government run schools and hospitals are shut down
What if the government can no longer fund schools and hospitals? How will the children learn to read and become productive members of society? How will those that are sick be cared for? And without government money, who will build the roads?
Our thinking around these concerns, was to remind ourselves that just because the government may be forced, even temporarily, to stop funding the provision of certain services, doesn’t mean those services will stop being provided. I’m not saying it would be a seamless transition, but in the unlikely event of a interruption in government funding, private hospitals, clinics and schools will continue to provide services. For those that cannot afford essential services in this kind of scenario, I believe that family, friends and charities would fill the void.
For us as unschoolers, government run schools shutting down is not something we personally lose sleep over. If you happen to be familiar with the philosophy behind unschooling, you understand why. As far as healthcare, we have no firsthand experience since none of us has gotten sick or injured in the time we’ve been here. The impression I get though is that healthcare is MUCH more affordable here than in the states, though the experience is not as posh. I figure that as long as we have an emergency stash of savings set aside, which will likely go a lot further for us here, we should be in pretty good shape. We are also planning to shop around for a high-deductible health plan so that we are covered in case of a major catastrophe.
The government jacks up taxes and fees to oppressive levels
The Puerto Rican government desperately needs cash and with all the scrutiny the debt crisis has brought on, I’m sure there is an army of public officials racking their brains to figure out how to get more of it. Last year, we saw the sales tax jump from 7% to 11.5%. Next year, the government owned electric company is set to raise rates by 26%. I hesitate to imagine what else may be coming down the pike.
We tempered these fears by remembering that tax competition limits how high the government can raise taxes. If the government pushes too far, it runs the risk of further eroding it’s tax base as MORE Puerto Ricans are driven to leave the island. High tax jurisdictions HATE tax competition, but it is an important check on any government’s taxation authority. The time to get more concerned about this would be if there were a move to restrict the freedom of movement, but I think that is extremely unlikely to occur.
My advice to those struggling with this monumental decision is to carefully weigh the risks (and rewards!) that YOU perceive in the context of your personal situation. If you decide to make the move, put together a solid game plan with a generous margin of safety AND a plan B, just in case. As you can see, Holly and I ultimately decided to take the leap in spite of all the ominous potential scenarios we contemplated above. We understand there are risks, but so far, we don’t regret our decision one bit.