August 12, 2006
By DANIEL E. GOREN, Courant Staff Writer
The Hartford office of a federal agency that has helped Puerto Ricans in Connecticut register to vote, get birth certificates, find jobs, further their education and establish and maintain economic connections with the island will shut its doors Dec. 31.
The annual budget of the Washington-based but commonwealth-funded Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration was slashed in July from $10.2 million to $6.2 million, forcing it to consolidate its regional offices into three cities - Chicago, New York and Orlando, officials said Friday.
"No other agency in the history of Puerto Rico has experienced such dramatic cuts," said Eduardo Bhatia, the agency's executive director. "It's stupid for Puerto Rico to be doing this. We have to be opening up and reaching out to the Puerto Rican community in the United States, not closing down offices."
Mayor Eddie A. Perez, who was born in Puerto Rico, said he stopped the closing of the agency's Hartford office in 2004 when a similar budget crunch threatened it. But facing this year's deep budget cuts, there was little that could be done, he said. The agency has three Hartford employees.
The mission of the agency is to give the island's government a foothold in the most vibrant Puerto Rican communities in the United States. It is also charged with promoting Puerto Rican participation in the mainland's electoral process and advancing the community's social, cultural and economic well-being.
"I'm disappointed," Perez said Tuesday. "We are a casualty of a political mess that has created an economic crisis on the island. ... This is not about the office being cut. It is really about the paralysis that the current debate has on everything that the island is doing."
The government of Puerto Rico is facing a serious fiscal crisis amid a political fight over the future status of the island.
Perez said he would continue to maintain a Connecticut connection with the agency through its New York and Washington offices, adding that it is important to promote economic ties between the island and the growing number of Puerto Ricans on the mainland.
But state Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford, also born in Puerto Rico, said she agreed with closing the agency's Hartford office. She said much of the work being done by the agency, such as registering people to vote, is already being done by local organizations.
"Why do we need to have a Puerto Rican affairs office doing that work when we already have people doing it?" she said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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