November 19, 20184:59 AM ET Heard on Morning Edition
The movement in Puerto Rico is growing. It’s taken on greater urgency after Hurricane Maria, as the island prepares for the arrival of tens of billions in federal recovery grants.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Puerto Rico is about to get billions of dollars in federal aid to help the island recover from Hurricane Maria. But many on the island worry that keeping track of that money is going to be hard, so they’re pushing the Puerto Rican government to be more transparent about its spending. Here’s NPR’s Adrian Florido.
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Community leader Mabel Roman Padro fights for transparency from the working-class neighborhood of Cantera on the outskirts of San Juan.
MABEL ROMAN PADRO: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: “Getting access to information here has always been a struggle,” she says. “Take what happened this summer.” She sat down to read a report about the island’s recovery that the governor was preparing to send to the U.S. Congress. The government was soliciting public comment on the document, but the 400-page draft was in English. Roman doesn’t speak English.
ROMAN: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: “Some people said, Mabel, I’ll translate it for you,” Roman says, “but I said no, no.” The Census Bureau reports that close to 80 percent of people in Puerto Rico don’t speak English well. Roman was angry that this important document would be off limits to so many Puerto Ricans. So she sued the government to get them to translate the report, and they did. Roman is part of a budding movement to push Puerto Rico’s government to be more transparent about how it spends taxpayer dollars, especially now that tens of billions in federal recovery grants are heading to the island.
CECILLE BLONDET: Well, we’ve been left in the dark for many years regarding many, many things. And after the hurricane, that metaphor became a reality because we were actually left in the dark for many, many months.
FLORIDO: Cecille Blondet directs the pro-transparency nonprofit called Espacios Abiertos – Open Spaces.
BLONDET: And it seems as if we are going to continue to be in the dark for many things.
FLORIDO: The most dramatic example of government secrecy was Puerto Rico’s refusal for months to release data about who died after the hurricane. Another example, just last month, it fought requests to release its updated hurricane response plan. Blondet and others fear that such secrecy, if applied to how the government issues its reconstruction contracts, could doom efforts at an effective recovery.
DEEPAK LAMBA-NIEVES: We need to keep a close watch on what’s going on so that we can protect the future of Puerto Rico but also project an image of transparency and credibility.
FLORIDO: Deepak Lamba-Nieves is research director at the Center for a New Economy, a San Juan think tank. He points to a website the governor promised would be a transparency portal for reconstruction spending. In order to be truly transparent, Lamba-Nieves says, it would have to include contracts and subcontracts, something that hasn’t happened yet. Only that way could the public closely monitor spending. Lamba-Nieves says limiting transparency could make it harder for Puerto Rico to get more of the recovery money it needs.
LAMBA-NIEVES: There’s a huge concern on the side of federal government that the government of Puerto Rico is going to squander these funds. I think this is totally unfair. I mean, it’s borderline discriminatory.
FLORIDO: But he says that perception is a political reality and that the island’s government can dispel that stereotype by being more transparent. NPR made several unsuccessful requests to interview the governor, but here’s what he said at a press conference in May.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RICARDO ROSSELLO: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: “We will have the most transparent disaster recovery process in U.S. history,” the governor said. It’s a promise he’s made repeatedly. Adrian Florido, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico.