The letters are stamped with images of Elvis Presley, barn swallows, purple hearts and bouquets of flowers.
In Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy docket, there are letters written by hand, on three-ringed paper, on a computer. They are not signed by lawyers or large investment firms, but rather by retired people, professors and teachers, civic organizations, financial analysts, politicians, inmates and the occasional anonymous.
The docket is like a controlled access neighborhood where each entry — there are more than 15,800 in the repository — has its own number. There can be more than one document inside and they are almost always legal documents. Except for the letters.
They are addressed to the federal court and to the judge in charge of the bankruptcy case, Laura Taylor Swain, and have different purposes. Some answer a request for information made by the attorneys of the Fiscal Control Board, who control the bankruptcy process. There are letters documenting the loss of savings after failed investments in Puerto Rico bonds. Others are concerned about possible cuts to their pension checks or the effect of bankruptcy on their lives.
Most ask that the government of Puerto Rico be ordered to pay them the money they claimed or invested.
The letters, in Spanish and English, are supported by evidence: work certifications; retirement forms; letters from superiors; tax returns; presentations; handwritten mathematical calculations. They are also accompanied by feelings: respect; ignorance; frustration; annoyance; and hopelessness.
In many instances, the only response they receive is a generic letter from the federal court notifying that the document presented is “defective” because it is illegible or unsigned, among other justifications.
Another of the generic responses that are repeated reads: “Although the Court cannot respond individually to all of those who have expressed their thoughts or concerns, the Court is deeply mindful of the impact of the fiscal crisis on lives, institutions and expectations, and of the importance of the issues that are raised in these unprecedented cases.”
Eliezer Santana's handwriting looks cursive, but it’s print. Between 2017 and 2020, he wrote at least nine letters to the federal court. He asks to be allowed to move forward with several lawsuits that he has filed against the government and that were paralyzed, or stayed, once the bankruptcy began.
Santana sued the government in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016, alleging civil rights violations. He agreed with the State to settle one of those lawsuits for $2,000. But he never got the money.
The whole process was paralyzed with the start of the bankruptcy process in the summer of 2017. This happened with all pending legal cases that could represent an expense to the government. This is known as the PROMESA stay.
“I request, because this is a small sum, and because I have conceded while PROMESA is in force [...] that the suspension be lifted in this case and that the check be deposited,” he wrote in his third letter.
There is an option to lift the stay with the approval of the federal court and this is what Santana unsuccessfully sought. The government objected and said that paying Santana would be unfair to the rest of the people who have similar situations.
Santana insisted: He was only owed $2,000 and not millions like the bondholders.
The judge ruled against him and ordered Santana to be notified by mail. His address is: 50 Carr. 5 Unit A-501 Edif 3-J, Ind. Luchetti, Bayamón, P.R. 00961. The Bayamón Correctional Complex.
MIGDALIA FUENTES CABÁN
In her two letters, Migdalia Fuentes Cabán cleared up several things. First, that her husband created the LALMFC Trust. That he stopped being the administrator after creating the trust “about 10 years ago,” and she is now the administrator. That the money is for two minors. That she met all the requirements and deadlines in the bankruptcy case when she claimed money from the government. That the Board rejected her claims. That she opposes to the Board rejecting them.
Finally, she asked for “any other solution that is considered fair in favor of the LALFMC Trust and consequently the minors it protects.”
Migdalia is the wife of Lutgardo Acevedo López, creator “almost 10 years ago” of the trust. In 2013, Acevedo bribed a judge to be acquitted of a negligent homicide case. He was convicted for these events in 2018 and has since served 15 years in prison.
A former public accountant and financial campaigner for the Popular Democratic Party, he wrote at the time that he had lost his reputation and his career.
According to a statement from Popular Securities, he also lost three-quarters of the trust he created with his wife. A line graph shows how the value of his investments went from almost $800,000 in 2011 to less than $200,000 in 2019. It was unsurprising: he invested in Puerto Rico bonds.
Now, the couple claims more than $640,000 from the government as creditors in the bankruptcy case.
Miguel Cubí worked 32 years as a public school teacher and during that time, the government never paid him nearly $20,000 in salaries.
Now retired, he claimed this money through the Puerto Rico bankruptcy case. He submitted as evidence a certificate that he received in 1968 from the Department of Public Instruction — now the Department of Education — that confirmed that he had met all the requirements to be an elementary school teacher for life. He also sent a check stub for the $404.57 pension he received, a worksheet that he created by hand showing the money owed to him and a table summarizing these calculations.
José Báez, a police officer, sent as evidence the letter in which former Superintendent, Pedro Toledo, notified him that he had passed his probation period.
Awilda Coriano sought a notary attorney to put down in an affidavit that she is retired, and they owe her money from salary raises.
The three claimed that the government never paid them a $100-a-month raise under a law signed by former Governor Carlos Romero Barceló in 1979 known as the Romerazo. They also owe them another raise granted in 2002 by then Governor Sila María Calderón to offset the increase in the cost of living.
This is also the story of Mariluz Collazo and thousands of former public employees who claimed salary increases in the bankruptcy. Most of the handwritten letters in the docket respond to these types of claims.
“A” apologized for using a pseudonym. “I honestly cannot reveal my identity for personal and professional reasons. Having said this, I am a bondholder and a resident of Puerto Rico,” reads the email sent from email@example.com.
“A” wrote to the judge to see how they could get the government to adopt a “healthy diet.” The person suggested cutting spending on agency heads and mayors' bodyguards, a waste that, according to “A,” equals to more than 200 Chevy Tahoe (or similar) SUVs, or about $40 million a year.
“A” asked that municipal services be consolidated across the 78 island municipalities. He also mentioned the food stipends granted to legislators. “It doesn't surprise me how we routinely find them in the island’s most expensive restaurants,” he wrote.
“A” stated that the government can cut expenses and hopes that the judge will make this happen. “I'm impartial as to how the ‘pie’ is distributed so long as it is done fairly and in accordance, to the extent possible, with the law,” said the anonymous investor.
Neither Bill Gates nor Mark Zuckerberg have enough money to do it. But Charles Willmore assures that he can pay all of Puerto Rico’s debt, more than $140 billion, according to the letter he sent to Judge Swain.
But there’s a catch. The money would come from the United States government, which owes him $750 billion for patents that, he said, cover the iPhone, the iPad, the iPod, Skype, YouTube, eBay, Amazon, Android and Facebook. The Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA, confiscated these patents, he said.
Willmore's explanation is included in the 30 pages he sent. There is no reply from the judge.
The mayor of Maunabo, Jorge Márquez, sent a letter asking Judge Swain for a meeting. He has a six-point presentation, all related to municipal funding.
His intention is to show the negative effect that the Board-mandated budget cuts will have on the municipalities.
“I feel that I have a responsibility to explain the effect that the $350 million reduction would have on the municipalities,” he said.
If possible, Márquez wrote, he wants Carlos Molina, now a former mayor of Arecibo and former president of the Mayors Federation, and Rolando Ortiz, mayor of Cayey and president of the Mayors Association, to go with him to the meeting. That way, Márquez said, the island’s 78 municipalities would have representation.
Two weeks later, Swain replied: “I must decline your request because, as the United States District Judge designated [to] preside over the PROMESA Title III proceedings of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and its covered instrumentalities, it would be inappropriate for me to meet with any interested parties outside of the context of the Court proceedings."
In a handwritten letter, Maritza Barris assures that the retirement money they want to take from her was not a gift from the government.
The retired teacher — she worked for 31 years — is concerned that her medication costs $200 a month, she does not receive Social Security and she only has her pension check.
“That’s my money, I earned it with a lot of effort, and it isn’t fair that when I need it most, they want to take it from me,” she wrote.
Barris unknowingly submitted two separate claims for her retirement income. The Board rejected both, first because they were duplicated and then because they were not related to any salary-related debt. Finally, the Board reserved the right to decide about what will finally happen to Maritza's pension.
The docket includes letters from other people concerned about what will happen to their pensions. After all, they have been experiencing reductions long before the bankruptcy.
Thousands of retirees have claimed the money they would stop receiving if their pensions were cut or eliminated. The final pension cut for all public employees is still undetermined.
Thomas Cook, vice president of an investment firm in Honolulu, Hawaii, asked the judge not to allow his clients to be called “vultures” or “hedge funds” for holding Puerto Rico bonds.
He says they are “real people” who live off their savings. He questioned: “If my clients have paid their bills all their lives, why can't they expect Puerto Rico to do the same?”
Years earlier, perhaps from that same office in Hawaii, Cook recommended to his clients that they buy general obligation bonds from Puerto Rico since that debt is “sacrosanct,” preceded only by the very debt of the US Treasury.
The Puerto Rico Sugar Corp. was created in 1973 by then-Governor Rafael Hernández Colón. It was closed and privatized in 1996 under the administration of former Governor Pedro Rosselló. The entity administered several sugar mills throughout the island, one of them in Yabucoa.
Eulalia López lives in Yabucoa and worked in the corporation for more than 22 years.
She wrote a letter to the federal court to note that while there are two claims in the system under her name, they are actually the same: $60,000 in wages she never received under the Romerazo.
Eulalia signed the letter with a cross because she cannot read or write.
ANÍBAL ACEVEDO VILÁ
More than 1,000 pages were sent to the federal court in July 2017, at the beginning of the bankruptcy case. Former Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá compiled them and submitted them.
They were signatures and comments from thousands of people who demanded that the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) be declared an essential service. This would stop any budget cuts to the university, since PROMESA requires adequate financing of essential services offered by the government.
“A movement has been created to put pressure on the government and the Board to protect the UPR. More than 25,305 people have signed an internet petition asking the governor and the Board to officially declare that the UPR is an essential service, request and demand that the fiscal plan be amended and eliminate or substantially reduce the proposed cuts,” Acevedo Vilá wrote in the letter submitted with the petition.
Three years later, the UPR has experienced more than $300 million in budget cuts.
Writing to Judge Swain makes Rocío Hernández, a bondholder, blush. She is a widow, 80 years old and lives in Santurce, a San Juan suburb. She thinks the judge is someone important and busy, and this is the second time she has written to her. The first was in July 2017.
“I wake up scared in the morning, thinking about my commitments and can’t sleep anymore,” she wrote that time, worried because she consistently gets less and less money from the investments she made with her husband through the firm UBS.
Rocío did not know that her money was invested in Puerto Rico bonds, since her husband was in charge of everything. She does not know what to expect from the bankruptcy process and she fears that this will lead to depression, “unless I suffer from it already.”
A year and a half later, at the end of 2018, she wrote for the second time. Hurricane María ripped off the roof of her bedroom and bathroom, she is further in debt and the $420 check she gets from UBS is not enough to pay her bills.
“I know there are many people who are in the same or worse situation than me, but I respectfully complain with all due respect to you because I don't know how much more I can take, besides the fact that my youngest son, who is 47 years old, had a stroke two months ago. Incredible, right? I can write English, but I find that I can vent better [in Spanish]. Puff!” Rocío wrote at the end of her second letter.