Choosing to stay in Puerto Rico, seeking economic and political renaissance

Luisita López Torregrosa tracks some of the people who chose to stay in Puerto Rico through thick and thin, following Hurricane María and the general economic crisis on the island. She quotes Sofía Stolberg who says, “Those of us who have survived and even thrived throughout the economic depression and now in the aftermath of the hurricane are stronger than ever.” López Torregrosa interviewed entrepreneurs, lawyers, artists, publicists, and other professionals about their decisions to remain in Puerto Rico, such as Sofía and Juan Carlos Stolberg, Deepak Lamba-Nieves, Mari Mater O’Neill [shown above], Andrés W. López, and Nelly V. Cruz Rodríguez.

Those who have left since the storm made landfall in mid-September cite the destruction to homes and towns, the persistent power outages and the island’s economic problems. But a group of professionals, academics, innovators and entrepreneurs who could easily pull up stakes and find high-paying jobs and resettle elsewhere are instead staying put, driven by a vision of rebuilding their island home into a welcoming haven for tech startups and other financially adventurous types.

Mostly upper- and middle-income and educated on the mainland, this group sees the seeds of Puerto Rico’s future in redefining how the island does business and how it governs itself — a vision of an economic and political renaissance that offers a sharp contrast to the pictures of despair and resignation that the island has been known for since Maria.

“We need to look for opportunity and exploit it,” Sofia Stolberg, 34, a Columbia University graduate with a master’s from the London School of Economics, told me during a recent visit to see how Puerto Ricans were coping post-Maria. Stolberg returned to Puerto Rico in 2013 and launched a high-tech startup with her brother, Juan Carlos Stolberg, 37, a Columbia University and Fordham Law graduate who had a practice in New York City and now advises investors in Puerto Rico to take advantage of tax incentives. Sofia’s husband, Giancarlo Gonzalez, 37, a tech entrepreneur and former chief information officer of the government of Puerto Rico, works with her and her brother to lure high-tech entrepreneurs to the island through their one-stop-shop services and promote high-tech programs.

The Stolberg siblings are fueling new tech businesses much like their own, Piloto 151, which is Puerto Rico’s first co-working space. [. . .]

Nonprofits and philanthropies are also pitching in. Deepak Lamba-Nieves, 41, the research director at the San Juan-based Center for a New Economy, who returned to Puerto Rico in 2016 with a Ph.D. from M.I.T., is helping the center design a private initiative called the Resiliency Advisory Commission. He is working in conjunction with and the support of the Ford, Rockefeller and Open Society (George Soros) foundations. “We want to know what Puerto Ricans at all levels are saying, and ask them how the recovery should advance,” he said. “Numerous subjects are on the table. That’s physical and natural infrastructure, water systems, energy and health, economic development and housing.” The Open Society and the Ford Foundation are directly funding the work of the commission, which is formally called “Reimagina,” which means “reimagine,” and the Rockefeller Foundation is funding several consultants to help with the work.

Reimagina is recruiting experts, called commissioners, to lead discussions, visit Puerto Rican communities and hold town meetings. The commissioners, who are unpaid and are primarily from Puerto Rico and its diaspora as well as some U.S. experts, will benefit from the experience of similar exercises carried out in 100 “resilient cities” around the globe and will share their findings with the Puerto Rico government. [. . .]

“On the first days after the hurricane, there was no order, no police control,” said Mari Mater O’Neill, 57, an artist, designer and educator with a doctorate from England’s Northumbria University, as we rode to the southwestern coast. Residents grappled with a spike in crime including the theft of prized items like generators. “There was a sense of having been forgotten, while at the same time, the delusion that the world was paying attention,” said Mater O’Neill.

But neighborhoods, families and individuals joined together to take action and not wait for government help. They swept roads, stacked debris, distributed food, stood patiently in queues for gasoline and water and procured generators for the neediest. On vans and trucks, volunteer brigades spread out to the hard-hit mountain areas, carting water, helping the ill, feeding children and operating with disciplined military fashion.

Everyone had a job, a duty — everything was coordinated, O’Neill said. “We showed Puerto Rican resilience.” [. . .]

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