Puerto Rico has been living through a storm for the past 12 years, and as with every storm, it has experienced different levels of intensity. But the current circumstances have to be handled quickly to be able to build the Puerto Rico that is needed, said José Rafael Fernández, CEO of Oriental Financial Group.
During an interview, Fernández mentioned the government shutdown in 2006, the layoff of government employees a few years later, last year’s government default on its public debt, and now Hurricane María as some of the strongest gusts in that ongoing storm.
“But now we have to stabilize the situation quickly. We have a great opportunity to build the Puerto Rico we need, and that we should have, that is within a framework of the reality of an island,” he said. “So that in 20-25 years, we can feel proud of what we’ve built.”
He said all sectors — private, government, labor unions and the nonprofit sector — must come together and focus on a strategy toward sustainable economic growth for Puerto Rico.
“But that will require a lot of leadership, and that leadership has to rise to the top now,” he said.
Oriental Financial Group is the parent of Oriental Bank, which has been slowly reestablishing operations following the passing last week of catastrophic Category 5 Hurricane María over Puerto Rico. As of Thursday, the bank had opened nine branches and activated 25 ATM machines throughout the island.
The bank also made public its decisions to effect an automatic moratorium on auto and personal loan payments, as well as on home mortgages for three months.
“Our institution plays a very important role, which is to facilitate progress for our clients, employees and stakeholders,” he said. “We’ve been in contact with more than 80 percent of our employees, some of whom have lost their homes. We’re helping them through an internal program we have set up.”
As for the economic impact the storm and its aftermath will have on Oriental, Fernández said granting the moratoriums will have an effect on the bank’s bottom line, but “that’s why we have an important capital base. We’re possibly Puerto Rico’s best capitalized bank, and that helps us to be flexible at times like these.”
Other other hand, he said federal regulatory authorities — the New York Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. — have been very responsive in this crisis.
He said the Federal Reserved sent an “important amount” of money to make sure there is ample liquidity in Puerto Rico’s banking system. “There is, and there will continue to be. I can understand the desperation and lines at the ATMs, but the situation will stabilize slowly because the money is there, it won’t run out and we will move forward.”
The federal government’s support is extremely important, he said, as it has a great responsibility over Puerto Rico’s current situation and it has to act “quicker and more intensely,” Fernández said.
“This event happened a week ago, and we can sit here and discuss all of the reasons why enough help hasn’t arrived here, but the most powerful nation is called he United States of America and if they can’t come here quickly to help 3.5 million American citizens, then it’s not the most powerful nation in the world,” he said.
There is “more to be done” and the federal government has an immediate responsibility to provide security, help in the energy sector, as well as in the distribution of diesel and fuel,” he said.
“We need them to provide those basic services to us so we can stabilize Puerto Rico. Not the economy, but society, to be able to then focus on how to stabilize the economy so that in the best case scenario, we can begin working on a long-term development strategy,” said Fernández.
As for the temporary waiver given to the Jones Act, Fernández said it helps, but 10 days may not be enough.
“This is something like a trickle-down effect and we have to continue to be hopeful and persistent, which are key to convincing the federal government that is must act,” he said.
“So we hope that when President Trump visits on Tuesday, he comes with an open mind, and ears open to listen and see with his own eyes the reality that is being created here that we have to take care of,” Fernández said.