The race to capture the Puerto Rican vote has begun. Last week the Republican Party of Orange County held a Lincoln Day Dinner honoring and welcoming Puerto Rican evacuees to the Orlando area.
It was a warning shot indicating the state GOP aims to fight for and win over Puerto Rican voters. The Democratic Party has not uttered much despite the wave of Democrat-leaning Puerto Ricans arriving daily in Florida – over 60 percent of Puerto Rican voters in Florida cast ballots for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Very likely, however, it is salivating over the prospect of turning purple Florida permanently blue.
Over 200,000 Puerto Ricans have arrived in Florida from Puerto Rico since the start of the hurricane evacuations in October, according to the office of Gov. Rick Scott. As American citizens, each Puerto Rican over the age of 18 is eligible to vote in Florida.
Three days before Ricardo Ramos resigned as chief of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, he blamed the government bureaucracy as a critical source of PREPA’s incompetence.
In a moment that received little attention and which is best described as the embattled Ramos’ cri de coeur, he told the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee member Sen. Mike Lee of Utah that “over 50 percent” of PREPA’s employment comprised political appointees – not the kind nominated by the governor but the kind elected officials of every political stripe in Puerto Rico utilize to provide employment for their people or mi gente.
For politicians, PREPA “even in its current bankruptcy is like the jewel of the crown in Puerto Rico,” Ramos said, adding “PREPA traditionally has been a company where politicians or parts of government can get their family members to get work.”
Gov. Rick Scott’s meeting with local officials to talk about Puerto Rico evacuees didn’t satisfy anyone looking for answers to questions about homelessness, housing, schools, jobs and transportation.
It’s not cheap welcoming over 140,000 evacuees to Florida, as Scott has done, and each level of government is eyeing the other for spending monies – cities are looking to counties, which in turn are looking to the state. Florida is looking to the federal government. Scott talks about “collaboration” among governments, pushing the issue down the totem pole without $$$.
At last week’s conference, Scott said it was up to local government to choose from available options, “because they have better information than anybody does at the state and federal level.” Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials added that its housing options– housing is the most critical issue for evacuees – are limited because the hurricane disaster didn’t happen here.
To make matters worse, Scott’s proposed 2018-2019 state budget continues to raid housing trust funds – to the tune of $92 million, the Miami Herald reported – at a time when Florida needs those dollars the most for victims of Hurricanes Irma and evacuees from Hurricane María.
Puerto Ricans’ flight from natural disaster is drawing parallels to the 1980 Cuban Mariel boat lift to South Florida but this is a flawed comparison. The Puerto Rican evacuation is no Mariel.
Aside from the obvious differences of sovereignty – Cuba is independent and Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States – the two population movements are different in small and significant ways.
But first, the similarities.The recent Puerto Rican migration is most like the Mariel boat lift in the audacity of its numbers: 125,000 Cubans fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba over a six-month period from April to October 1980 via the port of Mariel west of Havana, braving the shark-infested Straits of Florida often on rickety boats.
Cubans were escaping a failed economy – no jobs, no housing – just as Puerto Ricans are running away with little but their clothes from the near total collapse of Puerto Rico – no economy, no infrastructure (electricity, water), no schools, no medical care, damaged roads and housing.
But there the comparison ends.
Puerto Rico – Mariel Comparison
For the Puerto Rican migration to Florida is more intense, currently at over 143,000-strong in just over a month. It is also more dispersed, with Puerto Ricans arriving all over the state, not just South Florida, as happened under Mariel. More Puerto Ricans are on the way, as post-hurricane conditions on the island defy improvement and people no longer tolerate the wait for normal.
Back in April 1980, Cubans crashed the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana and took refuge inside, followed by thousands of others in a matter of days. Weeks later, Castro opened the port of Mariel, stating anybody who wanted to leave could do so – a first.
In contrast, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has clung to Puerto Ricans for dear life, understanding full well the dire financial and demographic implications of a continuing stream of people abandoning economically-troubled Puerto Rico for the states.
He grossly overestimated his and his cabinet’s ability to grapple with the disaster and rapidly improve conditions on the ground. In an irresponsible move, Rosselló took over 40 days following Hurricane María to request federal temporary housing assistance (known as TSA) for the worse-impacted island residents, perhaps fearing that TSA would throw open the migration floodgates.
It’s High Tide
But he couldn’t turn back the tide. About 100,000 Puerto Ricans are expected in Florida by year’s end – on top of the more than 143,000 who have already arrived, according to Gov. Rick Scott’s office. In fact, this week the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offered to airlift Puerto Ricans off the island to New York, Florida and elsewhere. And the Center for Puerto Rican studies in New York estimates between 114,000 and 213,000 residents may leave the island each year in the hurricane aftermath, with Florida a primary destination.