Could Puerto Rico’s moment be over? Leaders split on how to keep island in limelight

Just days before his dramatic ousting on Aug. 2, former Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló signed a law, with little fanfare, to move up Puerto Rico’s Democratic presidential primary elections in 2020 from June to March.

It was one of his last actions before stepping down, a move that Rosselló believed could place the embattled island on the U.S. political map next year. While Puerto Ricans on the island can’t vote in the presidential election, they’ve had the right to vote in the primaries since 1979. And in the midst of a crowded field with 23 candidates, every delegate could prove crucial to win the nomination.

“This law intends to bring national attention to Puerto Rico, especially in the upcoming Democratic primaries,” Rosselló said when he signed the law. “Currently, the primary is to be held in June, which reduces the impact we may have. By making Puerto Rico an early voting state, candidates will be forced to pay attention to our needs.”

The law’s signing coincided with one of the most strained political moments in Puerto Rico’s history: the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the island to call for the resignation of the embattled Rosselló. The protests that lasted nearly two weeks extended far beyond Puerto Rico, reaching diaspora communities large and small in places like Florida, New York, Washington D.C., and Texas.

Hundreds of protesters call for the resignation of then-governor Ricardo Rosselló on Tuesday, July 23, 2019 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Pedro Portal

But as people on the island feel normalcy returning, there is renewed disillusionment among Puerto Ricans on the island and in Florida that Democratic candidates are ignoring the territory’s struggles and have missed an opportunity to appeal to Puerto Rican voters. And they fear that the movement they hoped would fuel 2020 is quickly fading.

Miami-based progressive activist Frederick Vélez III Burgos, who is Puerto Rican, said he was shocked by how little attention was paid to the island during the two Democratic primary debates that have been held this year.

“C’mon, there’s 1.3 million of us in Florida... it’s now been two debates where they don’t even mention us,” he said. “In the middle of everyone celebrating how awesome Puerto Ricans are in being politically engaged ... they don’t even shout us out, except for [Julián] Castro again.”

Of the 23 current Democratic candidates, only five have a platform on Puerto Rico on their campaign websites.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren published a debt-relief plan for Puerto Rico, including the introduction of a failed bill in 2018 that could’ve allowed Puerto Rico to terminate its debt. Sen. Bernie Sanders also backs a type of debt-relief plan and the need to focus resources on rebuilding the island’s infrastructure in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Pete Buttigieg, who met with Puerto Ricans in Central Florida earlier this month, supports having Puerto Rico’s representation in the Electoral College and would back statehood if it were favored by most Puerto Ricans.

Julián Castro, who launched his campaign in Puerto Rico, has a statement on his website in Spanish calling for investment in the island’s educational system. Andrew Yang supports statehood.

“For every other candidate, Puerto Rico is an afterthought,” said Nicole Rodríguez, president of the Maurice A. Ferré Puerto Rican Democratic Club of Miami Dade and president of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida. “Where are the other ones?”

An early voting territory

While Puerto Ricans elect one non-voting representative in Congress, the island’s territorial status does not allow Puerto Ricans to have true representation in the U.S. government. To further complicate matters, neither the Republican nor the Democratic party participate in local elections on the island, so for many, the primary season every four years is their only chance to play red state/blue state politics.

But by voting so late in the primary season, political leaders worried that the island’s voice has been muted.

Charles Rodríguez, the chair of the Democratic party in Puerto Rico, said the new voting schedule should help amplify the island’s voice.

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Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló Carlos Giusti AP

“Puerto Rico was holding its Democratic primary almost at the end of the cycle and we had no effective influence over the process,” he said. The new dates early in the season “give us additional strength, and because we represent the Hispanic community to a certain extent, the way we vote matters ... In addition, the candidates will have to come to Puerto Rico and fight for the votes.”

Currently, Puerto Rico will have 59 delegates at the National Democratic Convention, more than 24 other states and territories, but the math can change before the meeting.

Rodríguez said Democratic candidates have to move away from platitudes and offer real solutions for an island that is stuck in a recession, is seeing a declining population and is saddled with more than $70 billion in debt.

During the island’s last primary, between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2016, some 88,289 Puerto Ricans voted — but the turnout has been as much as 10 times higher in the 1980s.

Puerto Rico has some 2.2 million registered voters, and anyone willing to sign a paper identifying as a Democrat (even on election day) can vote in the primary.

Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based Democratic pollster, said Rosselló’s law will have an impact on the Democratic primary, calling it “the parting gift that Rosselló gave the Puerto Rican community.”

“Every one of these [23] candidates is in a desperate hunt for delegates,” Amandi said. “Every delegate that’s up for grabs is fair game.”

But Amandi maintained that whether or not candidates make Puerto Rico a priority in their campaigns, it was ultimately up to the Puerto Rican community to show up at the polls, both on the island and in Florida.

“When you consider the federal government response to Hurricane Maria, to the destitution of the governor of Puerto Rico, to this president’s targeting of the Latino community, if Puerto Ricans on the mainland are not engaged and ready to vote... then nothing will politicize them,” he said.

2018 flashback

Meanwhile, many Hispanic liberals in Florida are still reeling from a 2018 midterm election where the Puerto Rican vote, which has tended to lean Democratic in past elections, did not materialize for the party in the numbers that were widely expected.

An estimated 50,000 Puerto Ricans are thought to have settled in Florida after Hurricane Maria in 2017, mostly choosing Central Florida as their final destination.

In part, strategists and activists alike attribute the losses in the state to the aggressive push from Republicans like Sen. Rick Scott, who traveled to the island eight times as governor of Florida.

Despite having been a supporter of the policies of President Donald Trump, who is deeply unpopular in the Puerto Rican community, Scott’s campaign streamed paid advertisements on Puerto Rican television and deployed state resources in the aftermath of Maria.

It was a moment that Democrats didn’t seem to seize, activists say.

“When you lose Florida you can’t go back and blame the Puerto Ricans,” said Frances Colón, a Puerto Rican community leader in South Florida. “There was an unrealistic expectation that Puerto Ricans would arrive in Florida… and would deliver key races in Florida to the Democratic Party with no substantial coordinated strategy to reach these voters.”

The sentiment was echoed by Federico De Jesús, senior adviser to Power 4 Puerto Rico based in Washington D.C., who said the problem with the Puerto Rican vote was not one of turnout, but a lack of resources devoted to the issue.

He said “it wasn’t necessarily a low turnout, but Rick Scott did a better job of campaigning than [incumbent] Bill Nelson did ... Just because the Democrats didn’t get the results they wanted doesn’t mean they didn’t turn out.”

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Still, Puerto Rican turnout likely lagged the statewide average, which could have cost Democrats the Florida election, according to experts and precinct data.

Power 4 Puerto Rico, a coalition of Puerto Rican groups on the island and the mainland, launched a “Show us your Puerto Rico Policy” campaign to get all the presidential contenders to agree on a comprehensive plan for the island.

The group’s director, Erica González, said the second anniversary of Hurricane Maria, on Sept 20, is likely to bring another round of attention to the island from presidential hopefuls.

“When the second anniversary comes around we don’t want just messages of sympathy, we want solid proposals” from the candidates, she said. “We’re looking for answers and solutions and not photo ops.”

Boricuas in South Florida

Some advocates point to encouraging steps, including the recent wins by Puerto Rican politicians in Central Florida, including the first Puerto Rican congressman from Florida, Rep. Darren Soto of Kissimmee, and Orlando state representative Amy Mercado.

While there are over 380,000 Puerto Ricans living in Central Florida, according to 2017 data from the American Communities Survey, the population in South Florida is sizable. In the metro area of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach, close to 224,000 Boricuas — a synonym for Puerto Ricans — are living in the region.

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Members of the Puerto Rican diaspora discuss solutions to the ongoing political crisis in Puerto Rico during a meeting at La Placita Restaurant on July 18, 2019. Jennifer King

Florida recently outpaced New York, becoming the state with the largest Puerto Rican population outside the island, according to 2017 Census data. Nearly 1.2 million Boricuas now live in the state, but the numbers are likely much higher, as the exodus of Puerto Ricans from the island has steadily continued. Some leaders in the community think local representation will engage Puerto Ricans to vote.

“Things are not going to change until we have more Puerto Ricans elected locally,” said Vélez, the Miami activist. For a region where Cuban Americans have historically dominated local politics, many activists are hoping Puerto Ricans can follow suit.

Eleazar Meléndez, a former journalist and political consultant, is a Puerto Rican candidate running for Miami Commissioner for District 1. He has been backed locally by some Puerto Rican leaders who view him as an opportunity to increase representation from the island.

He’s been a very engaged and involved member of our community for a long time,” said Colón. “He’s also been involved broadly in the Puerto Rican community in terms of raising its visibility, but he’s also worked in the city in all issues.”

Is Puerto Rico’s ‘summer revolution’ over?

In the span of a week, Puerto Rico churned over three governors as the island’s Supreme Court ruled Rosselló’s replacement was unconstitutionally in power. The vacuum of power ended with the swearing in of Governor Wanda Vázquez, the former secretary of Justice.

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Rosselló’s historic resignation followed scandals plaguing his administration, from political allies and cabinet members involved in a profane and vulgar digital chat that was leaked, to the indictment of several members of his administration on corruption charges.

The events led to a popular uprising that peacefully concluded Rosselló’s short two-and-a-half-year term marked by the beleaguered response to a natural catastrophe.

“Right now it feels as if nothing has happened, and everything has gone back to normal. It’s as if it has ended,” said Fernando Rivera, director of the Puerto Rico Research Hub at the University of Central Florida. “The illusion with Maria was that we were all going to magically come together. But that process was like activating the National Guard... That can be transferred over to a political level, but now everyone seems to have gone back to their corner.

“We still don’t know what the impact has been,” he said.

The brief attention paid to the massive protests on the island, however, gave some advocates hope that Puerto Rico could address its current political status, which makes it neither sovereign nor a state.

“Since we’re not a state... every year we have to be fighting for the same federal funds,” Vélez said. “At the end of the day, it’s up to us... It’s now clearer than ever that our political future is not in our hands.”