SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders warned Monday of a humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, calling on the U.S. government to support a debt restructure in the territory as he blasted what he called "vulture" funds for demanding austere measures.
Addressing a crowd in San Juan ahead of Puerto Rico's June 5 primary, Sanders called upon the U.S. Federal Reserve to authorize emergency loans and use its authority to allow for a restructuring. The Vermont senator also said hedge funds that hold a significant portion of the island's $70 billion public debt should take a "massive haircut" as the island continues to default on multimillion-dollar bond payments.
Hundreds of students gathered Monday night at the University of Puerto Rico to hear Sanders speak at the last of his three events.
"In the midst of this terrible human and economic crisis, it is morally repugnant that we are seeing vulture funds on Wall Street ... demanding that Puerto Rico fire teachers, close schools, cut pensions and abolish the minimum wage," he said to a wave of cheers.
The island is mired in a decade-long economic crisis and smothered by a public debt load that the governor has said is unpayable and needs restructuring.
Sanders said he would alleviate Puerto Rico's economic woes in part by rebuilding local infrastructure to create jobs and establish a clean economy by harnessing the island's solar and wind resources. He also called for an independent audit of Puerto Rico's debt and said that if any of the debt violated the island's constitution, it should be immediately set aside.
Sanders said he also would create a clear, binding referendum to give Puerto Ricans the chance to determine the island's political future.
He rejected a proposal by the U.S. Congress to create a fiscal oversight board to help Puerto Rico manage its debt, calling it anti-democratic.
"When you establish a federal control board that says these unelected officials have the power to make major, major decisions impacting millions of people and they are accountable to nobody ... that's wrong," he said to deafening applause during his first event.
Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla also has rejected creation of such a board. At an unrelated event Monday, he criticized the U.S. for not helping Puerto Rico when the federal government also faces what he said was trillions of dollars of debt.
"It's cynical," Garcia told reporters.
Some 250 people crowded into Sanders' first event, including former Puerto Rico governor Anibal Acevedo Vila and other supporters who expressed frustration with Puerto Rico's economic situation.
"I never thought the crisis would reach this level," said Maria Oliveras, a 63-year-old nutritionist with Puerto Rico's education department, who added that she found Sanders very promising.
Those sentiments were echoed by Jeffrey Rivera, a 36-year-old souvenir store owner. "He's the only candidate to have a solid plan for Puerto Rico," he said.
Puerto Ricans can vote in U.S. primaries but not in U.S. presidential elections. More than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island in the past five years to escape a worsening economic crisis. The majority of them have moved to the U.S. mainland.
Among those who lived abroad was Jose Hernandez, a 62-year-old retiree, who arrived early to set up signs supporting Sanders.
"Bernie pushed me into action," he said. "I was gone from Puerto Rico for 17 years and when I came back everything was the same or worse. His message convinced me. It's the first time I hear a candidate speak with such humanity, dignity and respect."
Congress has stalled on approving a plan to help Puerto Rico manage a debt incurred over decades as government spending went unchecked. House Speaker Paul Ryan said he expects to introduce a revised bill in coming days.
Sanders' visit comes a day before former President Bill Clinton arrives to campaign for his wife, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. She released a statement Monday saying all U.S. citizens should have the right to vote for president regardless of where they live. She also said she supports a referendum to decide Puerto Rico's political future.
"It is time to bring this issue to closure," she said.
Puerto Rican Democrats will choose 67 delegates to the party's national convention. Clinton has 2,240 delegates and Sanders 1,473 delegates. A candidate needs 2,383 delegates to win the nomination.
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