Nearly 18 months since Hurricane Maria leveled Puerto Rico, leaving close to 3,000 people dead and almost a quarter of a million displaced, the island has emerged as an animating, influential issue in the Democratic presidential campaign.
Candidates like former Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julian Castro and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) were first out of the gate with trips to the still-scarred island, but they won’t be the last. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) plans to visit in April or May, and Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and former Vice President Joe Biden, who has not announced whether he will run, are all expected in the coming months.
Puerto Ricans cannot vote for president in the general election, but they do participate in the primaries. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is working to move the island’s Democratic primary to March 8, 2020, the week after Super Tuesday, when the nomination is expected to still be up for grabs. Before that happens, candidates are eager to make a statement, using Puerto Rico as a jumping off point to highlight President Donald Trump’s failings and the impact his policies have had on the lives of people of color and Latinx American citizens. In this way, Puerto Rico has emerged as a microcosm of one of the central challenges facing Democrats in advance of the 2020 fight: what substance can they offer beyond differentiating themselves from Trump?
Puerto Ricans on the island and in the swing state of Florida acknowledge that the first step toward righting the wrongs of the administration is giving residents the dignity they feel the president has denied them. Castro and Warren both mentioned “respect” during their visits. But many believe candidates should be bold and go farther, instead of repeating the same remarks politicians have already made for years, before the island was pummeled with an economic crisis, a health care crisis, and Hurricane Maria.
“Just showing up is so 2008,” said Andres Lopez, a Democratic donor and lawyer on the island. He was referring to then-candidate Barack Obama’s visit, which electrified Puerto Ricans more than a decade ago. For many on the island and in the diaspora throughout the mainland United States, the underlying circumstances that left Puerto Rico vulnerable to economic hardships have not changed. The traditionally thorny issue of the U.S. commonwealth’s status must be resolved, they say. For some of them, that means statehood.
Lopez noted that nearly a century ago, the 1920 Democratic platform (which also supported women’s suffrage) included language deeming Puerto Rico a territorial government, “with a view to ultimate statehood.” In that regard, then, Democrats have gone backwards, Lopez argued.
“The ultimate show of respect is to embrace the issue that is holding us back,” he said. “All Democrats will parade themselves on Trump’s mistreatment of Puerto Rico, which is true, but that’s not going to differentiate them. Ultimately, they’re going to have to bite on the real issue, which is statehood.”
While support for statehood has risen in every poll conducted in Puerto Rico since the 1960s, it has not been without controversy. Statehood received 61 percent support in 2012 and 97 percent in 2017, but both results are controversial because they were partially boycotted by supporters of other options.
Gretchen Sierra Zorita, a Puerto Rican activist who often works to address economic issues, said the New Progressive Party, of which Rosselló is a member and which advocates for statehood, has effectively convinced progressives that equality translates into statehood. She argues that this stance offers a “cyclops” view of politics on the island. True equality, she said, would be to allow Puerto Ricans “self-determination” — a vote like previous referendums that would allow them to choose between statehood, independence, or remaining a U.S. territory — and a phrase that candidates use often, but is sometimes seen as the easy way out on the dicey issue.
“The ultimate show of respect is to embrace the issue that is holding us back … Ultimately, they’re going to have to bite on the real issue, which is statehood.”
At Warren’s January event on the island, Sierra Zorita planned to ask if the senator would be willing to commit to a standalone office for Puerto Rican affairs in the executive branch, a move to ensure that the island would no longer be treated like a political football. A campaign spokesperson for Warren told ThinkProgress that the senator would be open to re-examining the current structure and determining whether it needs to be changed.
Others agreed that beyond status, candidates could make concrete promises that would help the economy and feel less like pandering. A major target of ire from Puerto Ricans is the fiscal control board, which was put into place as part of the 2016 PROMESA law to restructure the island’s debt. The board, which also has oversight over Puerto Rico’s budget, was created because the island can’t legally file for bankruptcy under its status as a commonwealth. But the unpopular control board and its austerity measures are seen by many as an undemocratic imposition. They pinpoint examples like the privatization of respected institutions like the University of Puerto Rico, along with big-ticket expenses footed by taxpayers like a $625,000 salary to the board’s executive director as part its $64.5 million budget.
A century of colonialism is visible in the tree rings of the fiscal control board, with the island now facing two dozen hedge funds or vulture firms that seek to get paid over Puerto Rico’s debt. This territorial history and current dynamic is why Puerto Ricans don’t just want to hear a story of the island that begins with the bungled aftermath of a hurricane.
“None of PROMESA’s board members were elected by Puerto Ricans, Puerto Ricans did not vote for them, that’s what we want to hear,” Luis Davila, a national committeeman of the Democratic party in Puerto Rico and a member of the Democratic National Committee, told ThinkProgress. “The paper towels [that Trump threw into a crowd of people when he visited the island in 2017] were offensive and we get that, but we want to know what your platform for Puerto Rico is. We want to see more substance and less symbolism.”
Some statehood supporters weren’t satisfied with candidate visits thus far, though both Castro and Warren said they support self-determination for Puerto Rico.
Where the candidates stand
During her remarks when she visited the island in January, Warren dinged Trump right off the bat, criticizing the president on his immigration policies, before delving into policy.
She outlined her Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico — co-sponsored by Sanders — a $146 billion legislative package that would provide financial relief to the island, including money for economic development, renewable energy, and health care costs.
Booker’s campaign said that no trip is on the books at the moment, but Puerto Rican officials confirmed that he is expected to visit in the spring. Booker, who represents the state with the third largest Puerto Rican community in the mainland United States, launched his campaign with a well-received day one interview on Univision almost entirely in Spanish. Those who know Booker joked that they wouldn’t be surprised to see him walk the streets like Obama did in 2008, along with his rumored girlfriend Rosario Dawson, who is part Puerto Rican and a co-founder of civic advocacy group, Voto Latino.
A senior Sanders aide said the campaign is still building out its travel plans but the senator has always felt Puerto Rico was treated unfairly and will be among his stops in the coming months. The campaign recently announced that San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who is a member of the pro-commonwealth party, known as the Popular Democratic Party, and thus against statehood, would be a campaign co-chair.
Biden, whose long-rumored campaign appears to be gearing up for launch, has brought on Cristobal Alex as a senior adviser, sources told ThinkProgress. Alex, who has begun asking top Latinx operatives if they want to come work for Biden, resigned as president last week of Latino Victory Project, an organization that works to elect Latinx Democrats and held its annual political summit in San Juan in January.
With Harris and other candidates also expected to visit, Julian Castro’s campaign expressed doubt that they would be doing so if it wasn’t for his early, tone-setting visit.
“Julian believed it was important to go to Puerto Rico first because of the devastation the island has dealt with and because this administration has ignored the plight of Puerto Ricans and we’re glad to see that each of the presidential candidates is now making their way to Puerto Rico,” his brother and campaign chairman, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) told ThinkProgress, adding that if the island votes to becomes a state, Julian would, as president, wholeheartedly support that.
Many Democrats say that beyond a chance to differentiate themselves from Trump, the obvious reason candidates are interested in an island that can’t vote for president is Florida’s electoral dynamics. And experts warn that dismissal of Trump and Republicans would be a mistake by the campaigns.
“It would be a critical mistake to underestimate the support that Trump has in Florida,” said Christina Marie Hernandez, Obama’s Florida Hispanic vote director in 2012 and director of Que Vote Mi Gente (Vote My People), which focuses on turning out Puerto Rican and Latinx voters in Florida.
“Republicans don’t have to win the Hispanic vote, they just need to break the 35 percent to 40 percent threshold and they’ll take it, which is what happened with [Republican Sen.] Rick Scott.” Both Scott and former senator Bill Nelson came out in support of statehood, with Scott making multiple visits to the island.
Hernandez also pointed out another policy that has gained support from Democrats, calling Puerto Rico a perfect place for a Green New Deal and jobs of its own. “It’s about, what kind of economic resurgence can you enable, given they will get less resources than the rest of the country?”
Marcos Vilar, whose two decades of experience working on Puerto Rican issues in Florida led him to create United for Progress PAC, which recruits Democratic Puerto Rican candidates and candidates allied with the community, said the island’s fortunes will continue to directly impact the state’s recent arrivals and not just those from the hurricane.
“The number one issue is the economic development of Puerto Rico,” he said. “As long as Puerto Rico doesn’t have a way out of their fiscal crisis, there will be no end to the continued exodus to Florida.” Beyond meaningfully addressing PROMESA, and calling for career development opportunities and English classes for new arrivals, Vilar too echoed the call for respect that Castro and Warren led with, invoking his Respeta Mi Gente (Respect My People) campaign.
“That’s why I worked on Respeta Mi Gente, given the blatant disrespect the president and Republicans have had for Puerto Ricans and other Latinos like Mexicans, it’s a call that resonates with Hispanics in general,” he said.
Meanwhile, many Puerto Ricans on the island aren’t waiting for politicians to improve the situation; they’re doing it on their own. After the hurricane, Alejandro A. Calef Reichard started a foundation called Water for Puerto Rico that delivers water filters to people in remote, rural parts of the island. This month, he’s delivering 100 mattresses to marginalized people, a project that has taken him more than a year.
Reichard is also helping rebuild houses for two women who did not receive enough money from the embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for their homes.
“Colonial status is without a doubt a hindrance,” Reichard said. “But we have to take care of ourselves, get our house in order first.”