The Cable

Puerto Rico’s Governor Says He Can’t Stop Zika Without U.S. Help

Puerto Rico warns a financial crisis could turn into a public health catastrophe.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - NOVEMBER 14:  Governor Alejandro Garca Padilla announces a 200 million dollar expansion of pharmaceutical operations of Eli Lilly in Puerto Rico at the Governor's Mansion  on November 14, 2013 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The island-territory of the United States is on the brink of a debt crisis as lending has skyrocketed in the last decade with the government issuing municipal bonds. Since the tax exemption for american manufacturing companies expired in 2006 Mr. Garca Padilla said jobs in that sector have dropped from around 170,000 to about 80,000.  (Photo by Christopher Gregory/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - NOVEMBER 14: Governor Alejandro Garca Padilla announces a 200 million dollar expansion of pharmaceutical operations of Eli Lilly in Puerto Rico at the Governor's Mansion on November 14, 2013 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The island-territory of the United States is on the brink of a debt crisis as lending has skyrocketed in the last decade with the government issuing municipal bonds. Since the tax exemption for american manufacturing companies expired in 2006 Mr. Garca Padilla said jobs in that sector have dropped from around 170,000 to about 80,000. (Photo by Christopher Gregory/Getty Images)

Puerto Rican Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla is making a new argument for assistance with the island’s unpayable $70 billion debt: public health.

During a conference call with reporters Thursday morning, Padilla said the U.S. commonwealth cannot afford to eliminate standing pools of water or other places where mosquitoes thrive. Bites from the bug transmit the Zika virus, which has been linked to birth defects.

“The humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico is real and continues to grow with each passing day,” Padilla said.

The threat of a Zika crisis in Puerto Rico is acute. The CDC estimates it will infect 20 percent of Puerto Ricans who live on the island by the end of 2016.

Coming up with the money to deal with a potential public health crisis, and taking steps to stop it from spreading, is going to be tough sledding. Not only is Puerto Rico facing impending debt payments, it’s also being sued by private investors who are trying to recoup some of the money they lent the island. Earlier this year, Assured Guaranty and Ambac Financial, two insurers of Puerto Rican debt, sued after the commonwealth defaulted Jan. 4 on a $36 million debt payment.

Padilla and other Puerto Rican officials are on Capitol Hill on Thursday in an effort to find some relief. They’re pushing for Congress to pass legislation giving it something similar to Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, which creates a structured process for lenders to recoup some of what they gave. Right now, Puerto Rico isn’t eligible for this because it’s a commonwealth, not a municipality, and legislation giving it this protection — something the White House wants — has gone nowhere. Some Republicans want Puerto Rico to be more transparent with its finances in exchange for help, but the island has delayed producing financial documents demanded by GOP lawmakers.

The governor is also asking for a freeze on lawsuits against the island. Additionally, he wants assistance for its ailing health care system.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has set a March 31 deadline for Congress to come up with a way to help Puerto Rico. If lawmakers fail to act, the commonwealth is warning that a fiscal health crisis could morph into a public health catastrophe.

Photo credit: Christopher Gregory/Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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