KISSIMMEE – In a speech in the the heart of the nation’s Puerto Rican diaspora, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló vowed to sic Puerto Rican voters on political candidates who do not support the island’s hurricane reconstruction efforts after devastating losses inflicted by Hurricanes María and Irma.
Rosselló, who was joined at his first town hall meeting in Central Florida by Sen. Bill Nelson, Cong. Darren Soto, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Kissimmee Mayor José Alvarez, said his appearance before a 400-plus capacity crowd at Kissimmee’s civic center was more than an event.
“It is the start of an organization” to push and unify the stateside Puerto Rican population to register to vote and cast ballots not just in Florida, but also in Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Ohio, among other states.
It was time, Rosselló said, to let elected officials know that “there are consequences” for voting against Puerto Rico’s interests, as Congress recently did in the federal tax reform that will make it costlier for companies to operate in Puerto Rico, dealing an economic blow to the island.
The governor of Puerto Rico wants to be the Pied Piper of the Puerto Rican vote, leading the diaspora to the polls in 2018 if Congress doesn’t treat the island better under tax reform. Well, tax reform came and went and Governor Ricardo Rosselló may have to make good on his promise because the reform designates Puerto Rico as a foreign entity at considerable cost to the island economy.
“We are a significant voting bloc in the United States that perhaps hasn’t been organized well in the past,” said Rosselló in an article in Politico. “The diaspora, the Puerto Rican exodus, has always wanted to help Puerto Rico, it just hasn’t been crystal clear how they can do it. If we can establish that organization we can have plenty of influence.”
Rosselló is a little late to the political party, for everyone and her grandmother has been trying to corral the Puerto Rican vote, especially in Central Florida, with the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans in the state. And this has been the case for quite a while.
That aside, there is something laughable about Puerto Rico’s failed ruling class, of which Rosselló is a legacy child for his father Pedro Rosselló was a two-term governor, promising to sew up the stateside Puerto Rican vote. The island’s ruling class has demonstrated beyond a doubt it has no clothes of any political stripes, having abandoned the largely poor people of Puerto Rico to fend for themselves in the worse natural disaster in modern Puerto Rico and U.S. history. In addition, it has shown no political accountability for the man-made disasters that erupted after the hurricanes struck.
The 2018 new year will open a second, more difficult, phase of Hurricane María relief efforts for Puerto Ricans in Central Florida, after the new arrivals center at Orlando International Airport closes its doors on December 29.
The shuttering of the facility – which has helped 34,000 mostly Puerto Ricans since it opened October 3, including at Miami-Dade airport and Port Everglades – will leave Central Florida with two relief centers, one each in Osceola and Seminole counties. Orange County, which partnered with agencies at the airport, is opening a relief center before year’s end.
The assistance needed in the new year will be different from the aid first offered to evacuees, who are escaping unlivable conditions on the island – as of this writing, Puerto Rico has gone nearly 100 days without full electricity, the longest blackout in U.S. history. Orlando-area agencies have to grapple with efforts to help stabilize the lives of evacuees, by definition a thornier initiative, given the lack of available resources, most significantly affordable housing.
What happens when temporary housing vouchers expire for thousands of people living in motels mostly in Osceola and Orange? Will elected officials continue to point “that-a-way” toward who is responsible for stepping up to the plate? Will they join forces to tackle issues together?
The Hurricane María Disaster Relief Center, as the center is officially known, was an extraordinary move by gubernatorial executive order but it didn’t come with state dollars attached. Each agency has borne the cost of its involvement.
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.