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Marianas Variety

After Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, worries shift to Virgin Islands

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, V.I. — The United States Virgin Islands is best known for its powdery beaches and turquoise bays, a constant draw for the tourists who frequent this tiny American territory.

Yet away from the beaches the mood is ominous, as government officials scramble to stave off the same kind of fiscal collapse that has already engulfed its neighbor Puerto Rico.

The public debts of the Virgin Islands are much smaller than those of Puerto Rico, which effectively declared bankruptcy in May. But so is its population, and therefore its ability to pay. This tropical territory of roughly 100,000 people owes some $6.5 billion to pensioners and creditors.

Now, a combination of factors — insufficient tax revenue, a weak pension system, the loss of a major employer and a new reluctance in the markets to lend the Virgin Islands any more money — has made it almost impossible for the government to meet its obligations. In January, the Virgin Islands found itself unable to borrow and nearly out of funds for basic government operations.

The sudden cash crunch was a warning sign that the financial troubles that brought Puerto Rico to its knees could soon spread. All of America’s far-flung territories, among them American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, appear vulnerable.

“I don’t think you can say it’s a crisis, but they have challenges — high debt, weak economies and unfunded pensions,” said Jim Millstein, whose firm, Millstein & Company, advised Puerto Rico on its economic affairs and debt restructuring until this year and has reviewed the situation in Guam and the Virgin Islands. He called the combination of challenges in the territories “a recipe for trouble in the future.”

Tim Holler