Ricardo Rosselló became Governor of Puerto Rico in January at the age of just 37 – and he inherited a disaster.
The U.S. territory is mired in a $123 billion debt and pension crisis. It has wrecked the economy and paralyzed public services on the island of 3.4 million people, who are U.S. citizens. It’s also forced a tenth of that population to migrate to the U.S. mainland – and many of them have come here, to Florida.
Governor Rosselló believes the long-term solution is to change Puerto Rico from a U.S. commonwealth to the 51st U.S. state. He’s called a non-binding referendum on statehood for June 11.
Rosselló spoke with WLRN’s Tim Padgett by phone from La Fortaleza, his official residence in San Juan, about the upcoming vote – and Puerto Rico’s fiscal emergency, which caused the island this month to declare a form of bankruptcy under the guidance of a financial oversight board set up by Congress last year.
WLRN: You’ve often said Puerto Rico is an island of U.S. citizens who don’t have U.S. citizens’ rights – like voting in U.S. elections or having representatives who can vote in Congress. What are the most important ways you think statehood would improve Puerto Rico and help the island avoid future economic disasters like the one it’s experiencing right now?
Rosselló: If you see the tendency in the world the past 50 years, it’s been one of eradicating colonial territories. One of the reasons I’m so proud to be an American citizen is that America represents democracy. And it’s hard to fulfill that vision when you have still a colonial territory.
The limitation of being a colonial territory really inhibits us from being as flexible as we want to be in terms of economic growth. Right now Puerto Rico is a territory, but it’s treated as foreign in some respects. For example, there is what is called the Electronic Exchange Information Form, and it’s costly to our small businesses here in Puerto Rico – it puts an obstacle to our interstate commerce within the United States.
You wanted the referendum to be a choice between statehood and independence. The Trump Administration convinced Puerto Rico’s legislature to include the option of remaining a U.S. commonwealth. Does that indicate to you that President Trump would rather see Puerto Rico stay as is?
Well, I really can’t speak to what the President’s preference is. I can only say that you could have been President of the United States, and if you move to Puerto Rico you lose the rights to vote in the United States.
Duly noted. A previous referendum five years ago showed 61 percent of Puerto Ricans in favor of statehood, but those results were never completely confirmed. Are you confident a similar percentage of Puerto Ricans support statehood now?
Yes, I think it’s grown, as a matter of fact. Based on what we’ve experienced in the past four years, the complete collapse of the system, the fiscal meltdown, the lack of economic opportunities – my projection would be that people favoring statehood, that number has increased.
BRIDGE TO THE AMERICAS
Should they choose statehood, there’s no guarantee the U.S. Congress will pass the necessary legislation to make that happen. Puerto Ricans living here on the U.S. mainland can vote in U.S. elections. So how important a role will they play in gaining statehood for Puerto Rico?
It’s critical. Puerto Ricans are 5.2 million strong in the United States. It’s the second largest Hispanic group. And many are established in battleground states such as Florida. So I’ve been flying over to the States to talk about the importance of phone calls to their representatives. I really do think it’s a dealmaker.
And 70 percent of Puerto Ricans living in Florida were actually island-born, as opposed to only 30 percent of Puerto Ricans living in New York, for example, who are island-born today.
Yes, the most recent diaspora does tend to go to Florida. They know what it is to be living in Puerto Rico, they know the limitations – they know what made them leave Puerto Rico.
How would Puerto Rico’s statehood benefit the United States?
I foresee Puerto Rico being the first Hispanic state, in a moment where the United States is the third largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. But aside from that, Puerto Rico is positioned culturally, geographically, so that it can become the U.S.’s bridge to the Americas – a diplomatic center and a business center of the Americas as well.