Puerto Rico unveils economic recovery plan details

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico's government on Tuesday unveiled details of an economic recovery plan to pull the U.S. territory out of a nearly eight-year recession as it fights to trim $73 billion in public debt.

The plan calls for improving schools, strengthening tourism and agriculture sectors and reducing power costs, among other things.

Ingrid Vila, gubernatorial chief of staff, said Puerto Rico aims to have 2 percent economic growth by 2018, a goal that consultants have said requires some $12 billion in public and private investments.

"Puerto Rico is going through one of the hardest times in our history," Vila said. "Our debt growth rate is higher than our economic growth rate."

She said the government has already started working on some of the goals, noting that it has revived the sugarcane industry and that local farmers harvested rice for the first time in 30 years. Vila also said developers built some 2,200 new hotel rooms last year, although critics say they are waiting to see whether the occupancy rate will increase.

The government also is pushing to lower power bills on an island that depends on oil to generate roughly 70 percent of its electricity.

Education Secretary Rafael Roman said his department plans to enroll children into preschool at an earlier age and will open 32 new preschools this year. He said he also aims to increase the island's university graduation rate by offering free computers and continuing a program that allows students to take a college admission exam for free.

U.S. investors and bondholders, along with major credit rating agencies, have been closely watching Puerto Rico's economy amid pledges from the government to improve the island's fiscal situation.

Vila said the government plans to take concrete actions and adhere to the plan. "It's more than just a public declaration," she said.

Puerto Rico economist Martha Quinones said it is unclear whether all the goals can be realistically met. She noted the Caribbean's tourism market is already saturated and said Puerto Rico faces overwhelming competition from imported food items.

Quinones also questioned whether the island will reach 2 percent growth by 2018.

"It might not be achievable in four years because all those investments will take their time to generate growth," she said.

She also said Puerto Rico has implemented too many tax measures. "Companies need assurance that the ground rules are not going to change," she said.

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