The island’s 40-year-old governor is all in on statehood, calling it a “civil-rights issue of our time.”
By almost any metric, it’s a difficult time to be the governor of Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria devastated the island in September 2017, resulting in 3,000 deaths and the largest power outage in modern U.S. history. On top of that, the territory is trying to climb out from under $123 billion in debt, which has spiraled into a major bankruptcy crisis. Ricardo Rosselló, the island’s 40-year-old governor, has been trying to bring Puerto Rico back from these woes—while simultaneously pushing for statehood for the territory, a once-fringe cause on the mainland that has been thrown into the heart of the Democratic presidential primary.
Rosselló, whose father also served as the governor of Puerto Rico, is trying to spur investment on the island and is working to privatize many of its services—controversial choices in a place where many people are already suspicious of the government after austerity measures and a wave of school closures. Add to that an uncertain relationship with the White House, a congressionally mandated financial-oversight board to supervise fiscal choices, and a bankruptcy judge in New York refereeing how much the island has to pay its creditors. It’s complicated.
I recently spoke with Rosselló about the island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria, his relationship with Donald Trump, and the newly invigorated push to make Puerto Rico a state. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Lizzie O’Leary: When I interviewed you about a year ago, I asked you a question that I want to ask you again. Who is in charge of the recovery? Is it you? Is it the fiscal-control board, or is it the bankruptcy judge here in New York? Because you can’t do things with your hands tied in terms of money. So who’s in charge?
Ricardo Rosselló: Well, we are in charge. You forgot one important element there, which is the federal government. The truth of the matter is that the federal government, whether it be FEMA in a direct way or HUD, plays a significant role in disbursing funds.
The truth of the matter is that it is the disbursement of these funds that’s going to drive the recovery.
O’Leary: You were pretty careful in your criticism of the president initially, and that seems to have changed. How would you describe your relationship now?
Rosselló: My job as governor of Puerto Rico is to get the best and most resources for my people. In my view, that can’t be done by just kicking and screaming. It needs to be done with a willingness to sit down with folks at the table and look for the best opportunities for your people.
O’Leary: You’ve called him a bully, though.
Rosselló: Right. Well, here’s the thing. In the onset, we sat down and discussed the path forward. Then the communications started dwindling between the president and myself, and we started running into a lot of obstacles, which provoked slow disbursement of funds to Puerto Rico.
I don’t want to get overly technical, but every state has the power to disburse funds from FEMA. In Puerto Rico, we didn’t. We have to wait for FEMA to do it. And that provoked a slowdown.
So much so that 18 months after Hurricane Maria—if you compare us with 18 months after Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana—for every recovery project that we have going on, they had 32.
I want to sit down with the president again and have a conversation like adults to see how we can help the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico. This is not a political matter; there shouldn’t be any other consideration but helping U.S. citizens.
O’Leary: I want to talk with you about kids on the island. A study just came out showing that the number of kids under 5 fell by 42 percent in the past decade. Another study, conducted after Maria, found that 30 percent of kids feel that their lives or the lives of the people they love are at risk. You just had your secretary of education step down after a pretty bumpy year. Why on Earth would any parent want to keep raising a small child on the island?
Rosselló: Because we’re making significant changes. This has been a chronic problem in the past, and as a matter of fact, the data now show that people are seeing that we’re making those changes.
Transformations are often messy, but they have an important goal. With education, for example, prior to our administration there was no accounting. You couldn’t see how a dollar spent was actually impacting the children here. But we changed that. We established accountability structures. We established a per-pupil spending so that it is fair and just. We established school choice with vouchers and charters as alternatives.
O’Leary: You mentioned Hurricane Katrina to me today, and also when I interviewed you a year ago. But the rebuilding of New Orleans after Katrina resulted in a city that is a lot richer and a lot whiter—a lot of marginalized people got pushed out. Are you risking that here by courting investments and trying to bring a lot of money into San Juan? Do you worry about people at the margins?
Rosselló: I do worry about people at the margins, and that’s precisely why our action plan is completely divergent to what you just mentioned.
Puerto Rico has one of the highest Gini indexes [a measure of income inequality] in the world. What have we done in order to change that? To start, we increased the minimum wage in certain sectors—construction and government work, to name a few. We have established an earned income-tax credit because we don’t qualify for the federal one.
We’ve established equal pay for equal work for women. We’re doing the same with the elderly. So those things are in play. And it’s not lost on me, because one of my priorities as governor, even before the storm, was to tackle inequality.
But, of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t be inviting investment over here, and I think that one of the cool things that this moment brings to it is Opportunity Zones. As you know, Opportunity Zones are investment directed into areas that are underdeveloped. Our action plan is based on giving people, for example, their titles for their homes so that they can be rebuilt.
O’Leary: You mean titles for informal housing? Something like 40 percent of housing on the island is informal, meaning people don’t have paperwork and can’t qualify for many kinds of aid.
Rosselló: That’s right. So, you know, battling inequality is of the utmost importance, and it’s at the core of what I stand for as a public official—so much so that if we want to battle inequalities with U.S. citizens, abide by the will of the people of Puerto Rico and transition us into a state.
O’Leary: Well, I was going to ask you about that. You’re obviously pushing for statehood. There have been two referenda in the past seven years but nothing’s happened. How can you expect anything different now? You’ve got a GOP-controlled Senate, and it has no appetite in making that happen. It seems like you are risking expending political capital on something that may not have much of an outcome for people on the island.
Rosselló: Well, to me it’s a civil-rights issue of our time. You think about Martin Luther King battling racial inequality; you think of the women’s-suffrage movement. What would have happened if they didn’t push forward, even against all odds? For the first time in the aftermath of Maria, there is a consciousness about the situation of Puerto Rico that wasn’t there before. Over the past year and a half, this issue of inequality and lack of access that you and I have been talking about—it’s not only an issue here in Puerto Rico; it’s a main issue in the United States.
If you are for tackling inequality, you can’t not be for equal treatment of the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico. It provides a national narrative right now. We’ve had several presidential candidates come to Puerto Rico. That never happened before. We’re going to have a few more coming along over here. We’re moving our Democratic primaries earlier on so that it’s more significant. And now, whereas in the past Puerto Rico was maybe the 30th biggest issue, now it’s on the first page.