A defiant Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló urged the Central Florida diaspora to turn their outrage and frustration into votes against politicians whose policies hurt the island.
Rosselló and other Florida officials traveled to Kissimmee, the center of the Puerto Rican diaspora, last Friday for a town hall on the island's recovery after being devastated by Hurricane Maria in September. The catastrophic storm left Puerto Ricans completely in the dark and without potable water for weeks as they waited for help from federal officials. Slowly, the U.S. territory has started to pick up the pieces, but in the meantime, many Puerto Ricans have fled to the mainland, with the majority evacuating to Florida.
In his speech, Rosselló decried the unequal second-class status of Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens but can't vote for president and don't have representation in Congress. The governor says many politicians from Washington D.C. came to the island after Maria and said they would support the people of Puerto Rico. But later, Rosselló says they voted for policies like the Republican tax bill, which treats Puerto Rico like a foreign country and imposes a 12.5 percent income tax on patents and intellectual property of mainland companies. The governor and other advocates for the island say the provision will have a devastating effect
on Puerto Rico's manufacturing and pharmaceutical industries and potentially kill thousands of jobs. The governor has openly criticized U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, telling the Miami Herald
he was very disappointed with Rubio's vote in favor of the tax bill.
"This is where we have to draw a line in the sand," Rosselló told the Kissimmee crowd. "This is where we needed to be outraged – outraged by the response, by the inadequate response to U.S. citizens that live in Puerto Rico."
Rosselló said Central Florida's Puerto Rican diaspora needs to organize in a voting bloc like Cuban voters did in the past to push forward the needs of the island.
"We have unfortunately a second-class citizenship in Puerto Rico," he said. "Those of us that live there don't have the political power. But guess what?"
The Kissimmee crowd exclaimed, "We do!"
The Puerto Rican governor promoted statehood
for the island in D.C. earlier last week and said in Kissimmee he would go to other places in Florida and across the U.S. to promote voter registration. Rosselló added that America "has no moral standing" to preach democracy in places like Cuba, Venezuela and Afghanistan until they fix the issue of second-class citizenship in Puerto Rico.
"This is the opportunity for Puerto Ricans to band together, so that we can have a significant change," he said.
Rosselló's critics were quick to respond. At the press conference, one woman was escorted by security after shouting at the governor for Puerto Rico's slow recovery, calling him a "vendepatria
," which roughly translates to sellout or traitor. Orlando Latino
reports former Puerto Rico Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, from the opposing party, told an Orlando radio station that Rosselló delayed help to the island after waiting to accept help from stateside utilities. Over the weekend, Univision
reports the island's mayors and residents marched in San Juan to demand Rosselló expedite the process of getting electricity back to Puerto Rico – thousands remain in the dark after more than 100 days without power.
Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson accompanied Rosselló at his press conference, along with U.S. Rep. Darren Soto and Kissimmee Mayor Jose Alvarez. Nelson, who recently visited Puerto Rico with Soto, blamed Congress for making the situation in Puerto Rico harder.
"No American should have to go through what the people of Puerto rico are still going through right now," the Democrat said. "In fact, no human being should have to go through what they're going through."
Scott, who's rumored to be entering the 2018 Senate race against Nelson, told the crowd his priority was to help everyone impacted by Hurricane Maria. Florida's Republican governor touted his order to open relief centers for Puerto Rican evacuees in the state's major airports and pledged $1 million to help evacuees find jobs through CareerSource Florida.
"Long-term, I know the governor wants them to come home, but in the meantime, we want them to be prosperous," Scott said.