Eduardo Bhatia, JD ’90: Leading Puerto Rico through Challenging Times

Eduardo Bhatia, JD ’90: Leading Puerto Rico through Challenging Times 1
Senate President Eduardo Bhatia, JD ‘90, addressing the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (Photo courtesy of Senate President Bhatia’s office)

Eduardo Bhatia lives in a tropical paradise. “A lot of my classmates are trying to make money to retire to places like Puerto Rico. I don’t have to—I already live here,” he says. Raised on the Caribbean island, it is not just a home to Bhatia. As president of the Senate in Puerto Rico, it’s his passion. And his challenge. Now in its eighth year of recession, Puerto Rico is grappling with a host of tough issues, such as high energy prices, declining GDP, and population flight of residents to mainland U.S. cities. But there has been some positive news recently, with new income tax incentives drawing wealthy Americans to the island. And Bhatia is optimistic about the future of Puerto Rico. “We know what has to be done to turn this around,” he says. “And I am part of a team that is working to achieve this goal.”  

Bhatia is looking beyond Puerto Rico for ideas to help solve its challenges, and also to advocate for Latinos in the U.S. territories and mainland. As president of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, he has a bird’s-eye view of the issues. The nonpartisan organization represents more than 300 elected Hispanic state legislators throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. “I’ve been involved at the national level with two issues: education and immigration for Latino kids. Fifty percent of all kids in public schools in Texas and in California are Latino,” he says. “These kids will soon be going to college. Their influence and preparation is important. We are developing mentorship programs so that they can one day be ready to take on  leadership roles.” 

Bhatia has seen the ethnic makeup of the American population shift, but wonders when it will be reflected in the national psyche. 

“Why don’t we realize there’s more commercial action with our Latin American neighbors than with China?” he asks. “Mexico, Brazil, Argentina—these are our greatest trading partners. Yet we think only in terms of the border crisis; that is the story we read in the paper. We still look westward to Asia as a commercial partner, but that’s changing.” 

Bhatia is himself a mix of influences from the East and the West; his mother is Hispanic and his father is from India. Both academics, they instilled in Bhatia and his siblings the importance of education, and he excelled. Bhatia studied government and public policy at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. There he first became politically aware, joining the Princeton Democratic Students Association and the Student Council as well as participating in the student movement against apartheid in South Africa. 

“I was fascinated by public policy and decided I would apply to law school,” he says.

Bhatia graduated from Princeton in 1986 but deferred for one year before coming to Stanford Law, as he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study law, economics, and politics in Santiago, Chile. The experience of living in a dictatorship (General Augusto Pinochet was still in power) was, he says, formative—influencing his career path to public service. 

“There’s no better way to understand freedom and democracy than to live where they don’t have either one,” he says. “Life there was very restrictive, psychologically, and that influenced me—I saw how much power the state can have.”

But Bhatia found Stanford Law a welcoming and intimate place, and he enjoyed getting to know his classmates and faculty. He was active in the East Palo Alto Community Law Project and joined his classmate from Princeton and close friend, Anthony Romero, JD ’90, in directing a successful campaign against rent increases for low-income tenants. “The issue was on the ballot, so it wound up becoming an electoral project too—registering people to vote,” he says. 

Bhatia found classes with Miguel Méndez [Adelbert H. Sweet Professor of Law, Emeritus] and Congressman Tom Campbell [former professor of law at SLS] particularly inspiring. And he had a good relationship with then-dean Paul Brest who “would have us over to his home and took an interest in getting to know us,” he says. He describes Bill Gould [Charles A. Beardsley Professor of Law, Emeritus] as a “great mentor,” who also encouraged him to learn baseball. “When I introduced myself to him after the first day of class, he said, ‘You’re from Puerto Rico, you must know how to play baseball—let’s go to the batting cages,’ ”says Bhatia. “Honestly, I wasn’t good, so I had to learn—quickly.”

Bhatia found the innovative spirit at Stanford contagious, with people willing to try new things. He co-founded Stanford Journal of Law & Policy while still in his 2L year. The first issue of the academic journal, published in 1989, included an impressive lineup of authors, with articles by then-governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, Congressman Charles Rangel, and Marian Wright Edelman, among others.

The journal was, perhaps, ahead of its time looking for overlap with other disciplines. In the introduction the editors stated they aimed to be “an interdisciplinary connection … .” Leadership at Stanford took notice too. Brest wrote, “The need for bringing legal expertise to bear on the analysis of policy issues has never been greater. In addition to perennial problems, such as poverty, racial injustice, and educational inadequacies, we are encountering new challenges—for example, crack, global warming, and the AIDS epidemic. The law is increasingly looked to for addressing all of these problems and must inevitably play a role in their resolution or amelioration.”

In the second issue of the journal, Bhatia and his co-editors focused on the savings and loan crisis. “That issue was featured in the Wall Street Journal, the San Jose Mercury News. We thought, ‘Wow, we did it!’ ” he says. 

Following law school, Bhatia took a traditional legal career path, clerking for Judge Levin H. Campbell at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston. He next moved to Washington, D.C., for a year and served as chief of staff for Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico Jaime Fuster, after which Bhatia returned to Puerto Rico to work for the law firm McConnell Valdes. 

Bhatia’s political career began in 1996, when at just 32 he was elected senator at-large by the Popular Democratic Party in Puerto Rico. At the end of the term in 2000, he returned to private practice, mounted two failed bids to become mayor of San Juan, and then went back to public service in 2005, when he was appointed by the governor to serve as executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Washington. He was once more elected to office in 2008 after a successful run for a second term as senator, taking the position as the commonwealth was buckling under the pressures of the Great Recession. After his reelection in 2012, he was then elected as president of the Senate in Puerto Rico by the rest of the senators.

Bhatia has made the economy and strengthening the middle class in Puerto Rico a key focus of his service. He describes its challenges as a perfect storm, including the recession, poor energy management, and missed opportunities. He explains that the economy transitioned fairly successfully from agriculture to manufacturing over the course of half a century with the help of tax incentives to draw business investment. “We couldn’t compete with the Dominican Republic to grow cane sugar, but because of key tax incentives that brought business here, the economy was growing up until the late 1990s,” he says. “But the then-governor of Puerto Rico and President Clinton agreed to take away those tax incentives—and companies went to Ireland instead of here.” The recession hit and mismanagement of the state-owned energy company, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), brought it all to a head. Today, unemployment is running just above 13 percent—down from a high of about 15 percent. But energy costs have skyrocketed over the last decade—rising from 12 cents to 26 cents per kilowatt hour. 

“You bring down energy costs, and the recession will end,” he says. To that goal, he has led the charge to pass a major reform of PREPA with his Energy Relief Plan, aiming to make it more competitive and less costly and to encourage customers to use renewable energy. A modified version of the plan was signed into law last May (Law 57 of 2014). “This isn’t ideological, but practical,” he says. “PREPA is a state-owned monopoly that is just not working for the people.” He also wants to make energy in Puerto Rico more environmentally friendly. “More than 60 percent of our energy comes from oil. We are not being environmentally intelligent. Yet PREPA refused to connect privately owned solar panels to the grid. That has to change. We have a lot of sun here so we must take advantage of that.”

Bhatia explains that the government is also trying to attract more tourism—and more manufacturing through low taxes. “We’re a tropical heaven, but what drives our economy is manufacturing. We have a huge life sciences sector that is increasing: 50 percent of our GDP is from pharmaceuticals and manufacturing; 6 percent is from tourism. To create a robust middle class, Puerto Rico must become competitive again.”

As Bhatia and his colleagues in the Puerto Rico Senate make progress on the economic front, he is turning his attention to education. “Our public education system here is in terrible shape; it’s poorly run with 90 percent of our students failing under federal standards,” he says. “Wealthier families are sending their children to private schools.” He’s looking to innovations in public education on the mainland, particularly in New York, for inspiration, but also recalling his family law classes with Michael Wald [Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law, Emeritus]. “As Professor Wald would say, we need to be very focused on the child—how we can strengthen the child. This is a hard question to solve because it’s so emotional. This isn’t a budgetary question—we have a lot of money for education. But we aren’t spending it wisely.” To him, progress is not when disadvantaged  children go to private schools; “progress is when children of wealthy families go to public schools.”

Looking ahead, Bhatia is excited about the opportunities in Puerto Rico. “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” he says. “We are pushing ourselves to reinvent our people and our government. There’s a lot of energy here, as well as an abundance of creativity and innovation for a public policy wonk like me. It’s wonderful.”  SL

3 Responses to Eduardo Bhatia, JD ’90: Leading Puerto Rico through Challenging Times
  1. Our crisis is wonderful because it creates the situation for an opportunity? I”ll give you an opportunity. The only good opportunity is that gringos would finally decide to take over the Caribbean Greece and appoint a Trustee to handle our finances.

  2. Hon. Eduardo Bathia, president of the Senate of Puerto Rico brings into the spotlight a brief analysis of both his initiatives and the deep underlying financial and structural crisis on the island. This crisis is the result of decades of misgovern and overspending without looking into the future. There are no easy answers in Puerto Rico. The political rhetoric and cannibalism is a force that hampers and diverts any chance to implement true changes. The common citizen has seen how decades of tax paying has done little to benefit them while securing their future. This equation translates into a lack of confidence in the government, even when the actual governor does wants to make correct but difficult changes. If there is an opportunity here it is to reformulate the government, have companies, including commerce stop whining and start becoming part of the solution by looking out for the common good and not just their growing greediness. Here the sacrifice must start from the top, because they have benefited many times in less than moral ways having the simple citizen, especially the middle class take the worst part year after year, crisis after crisis.

  3. I love the quotes and each and every good intention of this good man of politics but he knows as well as I and all the Puerto Ricans know, that Puerto Rico is no longer a good place to live and that even his colleagues won’t let him be. It’s a shame that we vote for people with good intentions and then… They all forget!!!

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