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What you should know about Puerto Rico’s economic crisis

Alejandro García Padilla Swore as Puerto Rico's GovernorAlejandro García Padilla Swore as Puerto Rico's Governor
Alejandro García Padilla gives a speech at the podium during his inaugural address as he is sworn in as Puerto Rico's 10th Governor on January 02, 2013 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photograph by David F. Gasser — CON LatinContent/Getty Images

As Greece’s debt crisis grows increasingly dire, another territory much closer to home — Puerto Rico — has admitted to some major financial woes.

What exactly is happening in Puerto Rico?

Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro García Padilla made a worrisome announcement Sunday that the island cannot pay back its $72 billion in public debt, the New York Times reports. Padilla and his staff, according to the Times, are seeking to defer debt payments for as long as five years, while also possibly seeking concessions from many of its creditors.

“The debt is not payable,” García Padilla said. “There is no other option. I would love to have an easier option. This is not politics, this is math.”

Okay… in English, please?

Puerto Rico is in the midst of a decades-long economic struggle fueled by years of recession and slow economic growth. As a result, its government has taken out massive loans from creditors to cover its costs.

But Puerto Rico has to pay back the money (or figure out a Plan B). In recent years, the commonwealth has raised taxes and slashed pensions in order to pay back its loans, but the island’s “tab,” so to speak, has still spiraled out of control. Many residents have found their businesses collapsing — Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate is double that of mainland America — while others have been leaving the island for better opportunities state-side.

Financial markets across the world have already been rocked by Greece’s debt crisis, and Puerto Rico’s troubles will only add to the current global economic uncertainty.

What does this mean for Americans?

If you’re an investor in municipal bond funds, Puerto Rico’s debt might be your problem, too. Municipal bonds — or loans used by local governments to fund public projects — have traditionally been considered safe investments. But some investors are worried about them — several American cities have filed for bankruptcy in recent years, and the Puerto Rico situation could make things worse. According to the Washington Post, as many as three out of four municipal bond mutual funds held Puerto Rican bonds in 2013.

How bad is the situation exactly?

Padilla called the situation a “death spiral.” And he wasn’t exaggerating: Puerto Rico’s debt is four times that of Detroit’s, and the island has more debt per capita than any American state. Analysts believe the central government will run out of cash as soon as July, according to the Wall Street Journal, which could lead to a government shutdown, emergency measures and an unpredictable crisis.

So what’s next for Puerto Rico?

Good question. While Padilla seeks to negotiate with creditors, his administration is also pushing for the right to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 9, which outlines a plan for creditors to get back some of their money. (That’s what happened with U.S. cities like Detroit, Mich., and Stockton, Calif., last year.) But under current law, that right is afforded only to U.S. cities, not to states or territories including Puerto Rico.

Read next: Everything to Know About Greece’s Economic Crisis