US & Canada

Obama calls on Congress to avoid 'humanitarian crisis'

Puerto Rico and US flags Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The debt plan would need approval from a Republican-controlled Congress

The Obama administration is urging Congress to devise a plan for Puerto Rico's massive $72 billion (£47 billion) debt in order to avoid a "humanitarian crisis".

The US Treasury Department urged lawmakers on Thursday to make a blueprint that would permit Puerto Rico to restructure its debt.

A plan would include more oversight over Puerto Rico's finances.

It includes Medicaid expansion and an expansion of low-income tax credits.

"Puerto Rico is out of cash and running out of options," said Antonio Weiss, a Treasury Department official, to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which presides over Puerto Rico. "In the very near future, Puerto Rico will face impossible choices among providing essential services, delivering promised pension benefits and paying its debt."

The proposal is unlikely to be approved by the Republican-controlled Congress, which has opposed increased spending.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democrat seeking the party's presidential nomination, called for a rescue plan that protects the island with 3.5 million residents and not just investors who purchased government bonds-on which Puerto Rico has defaulted.

"This is a human tragedy, and Wall Street should not be believing that they can get blood from a stone," he said.

Image copyright AP
Image caption With businesses continuing to close, Puerto Rico is by far the most indebted territory or state per capita in the United States

In August the US territory failed to make a debt payment, saying it did not have the funds to pay more than $50m (£32m) due on bonds.

It is by far the most indebted territory or state per capita in the United States, and unemployment is at almost 14% - more than double the national average - and over the last decade there has been little or no growth, resulting in the economy teetering on the brink of collapse.

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren said Department of Treasury officials should be as aggressive as they were in bailing out banks during the 2008 financial crisis in helping out Puerto Rico.

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