The hands of Leonel de Jesús Ubiles are hardened with years of work. His entire life has been spent lifting and carrying, welding and hammering, and sweating in the hot Caribbean sun. It is not easy being a construction worker in Toa Baja, especially when you are 57 years old. But for Ubiles it became much worse, when he became unemployed.
The “official” unemployment rate in Puerto Rico is hovering at around 14 percent, but the real unemployment is closer to 25 percent. Youth unemployment is “officially” at 27 percent, but in reality it is close to 50 percent. The island’s poverty rate of 45% is higher than any state in America, and the per capita income of $16,560 is roughly half that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the US.
Despite all this – thanks to an 11.5 percent sales tax, and water rates rising by 67%, and gasoline taxes rising twice in one year, and electricity rates at 29 cents per kilowatt hour, and milk costing costing over $6 per gallon – the cost of living in Puerto Rico is higher than anywhere in the continental United States.
All of this hit Leonel de Jesús Ubiles very hard when he became unemployed. He looked for work everywhere but the contruction industry was flat. Jobs were scarce all over the island and, especially in the construction industry, you either had to buy a job or know a politician. If not you were out of luck, and out of a job.
Ubiles was out of luck. The weeks stretched into months, and he could no longer pay his bills. In early 2015 he became homeless, after a lifetime of building homes for other people. He tried to find work, tried to find assistance, but he found nothing. Finally in June, he started to beg the local police to arrest him, so that he could at least eat a full meal in jail.
Finally on June 22, 2015, Ubiles scraped together a few dollars and bought a small packet of marijuana. He then presented himself to the police, gave them the marijuana, and demanded that they arrest him.
Leonel de Jesús Ubiles
The police had no choice, but the word spread quickly through Toa Baja, especially when radio station WKAQ began reporting on it. It became so embarrassing that the mayor of Toa Baja, Aníbal Vega Borges, personally paid the $2,000 bail, and some temporary housing and social services were found for Ubiles.
On the surface, Mayor Borges sounds like a generous man. But as of 2012, the mayor of Toa Baja makes $67,800 a year. Before that, for twelve years, he was a member of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives. In other words, Borges is a career politician.
When he took office in 2005, Toa Baja had a surplus of $4.2 million. Within five years by 2010, with Borges as mayor, Toa Baja had a déficit of $22.7 million.
Puerto Rico has 78 mayors, whose average salary is almost exactly that of Mayor Borges. No one knows exactly what all these mayors do – except collect their paychecks, give jobs to their family and friends, and accumulate enormous budget deficits.
Mayor Aníbal Vega Borges
But on that day, when Radio WKAQ and El Nuevo Dia started reporting Ubiles’ predicament, Mayor Borges knew exactly what he had to do. He had to get Ubiles out of jail and away from the media, as soon as possible.
This is how bad things are getting in Puerto Rico: where a 57-year old construction worker has to beg the pólice to arrest him, and throw him in jail, in order to be able to eat. Just to survive, Leonel de Jesús Ubiles had to commit an act of utter desperation and humiliation.
This desperation is growing, all over the island.