Some progressives worry Puerto Rico is being left behind on 2020 campaign trail

By Camilo Montoya-Galvez

/ CBS News

Some progressive groups are concerned that Puerto Rico is being left behind on the 2020 campaign trail, with the sprawling field of Democratic candidates not actively addressing issues the island continues to grapple with — including stalled hurricane recovery efforts, a prolonged fiscal crisis and what many believe has been more than 120 years of colonial treatment.

With other issues like health care, immigration, climate change and gun control dominating the discourse among White House hopefuls, a coalition of more than 50 Puerto Rican and Latino advocacy organizations are ramping up efforts to make sure the pressing problems faced by the U.S. territory — home to 3.2 million American citizens — don't get lost in the national conversation as next year's presidential election approaches.

Erica González, the director of the group spearheading the campaign, Power 4 Puerto Rico, said the objective is to ensure the island, which is still recovering from two powerful storms in 2017, becomes a staple issue in election cycles.

Puerto Rico's road to recovery More

More in Puerto Rico's road to recovery

"In the same way the programs and policy platforms are put out about jobs or education or immigration, we want to see the level of presentation in terms of a cohesive and comprehensive set of policies that are going to address issues for Puerto Rico pre- and post-Hurricane María," González told CBS News.

Some of the groups in the coalition include the Latino Victory Project, the National Conference of Puerto Rican Women and Latinos for Healthcare Equity.

This June 18, 2018 photo shows an aerial view of the Viequez neighborhood, east of San Juan, Puerto Rico, with blue plastic tarps covering the roofs of homes damaged by Hurricane Maria nine months before. Dennis M. Rivera / AP

The residents of Puerto Rico have continued to struggle with new — and old — problems in the aftermath of the devastation caused by hurricanes María and Irma in 2017. According to figures accepted by the Puerto Rican government, about 3,000 people were killed as a result of María and the island incurred about $90 billion in damage.

About 30,000 damaged houses on the island still have blue tarps for roofs, a Puerto Rican government official told CBS News. The electrical grid, which was destroyed by María, is now operational but remains fragile. The morgue in San Juan — the only one on the island — continues to face a backlog of bodies. In Vieques, a smaller island off Puerto Rico's eastern coast, most residents still don't have access to comprehensive medical care.

Puerto Rico's depleted nutritional program has also been scaling back services as it waited for months for Washington to approve more funding — which was finally authorized Thursday, when President Trump signed a long-delayed disaster aid package.

Additionally, the island still has not recovered from years of economic woes, fueled in part by a ballooning debt. The federal fiscal oversight board set up by Congress in 2016 to manage the island's debt is deeply unpopular, with many denouncing it as an undemocratic institution which has hindered Puerto Rico's recovery by ordering austerity measures.

Some of the candidates in the diverse, two-dozen field of Democrats running for president have addressed these issues on the campaign trail but few have visited Puerto Rico — and only one has rolled out a substantive policy proposal for the island.

So far, only Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary Julián Castro, the sole Latino in the race, have visited the island during the campaign. Warren, who has led the field in releasing policy proposals, unveiled a plan in May to restructure Puerto Rico's debt by terminating some of it.

Puerto Rico Julian Castro
Julian Castro visits Playita, one of the poorest and most affected communities by Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. The presidential candidate has joined dozens of high-profile Latinos in Puerto Rico to talk about mobilizing voters ahead of the 2020 elections and increasing Latino political representation to take on President Donald Trump. Carlos Giusti / AP

Former Vice President Joe Biden, considered the early frontrunner in the race, does not have any information on Puerto Rico on his 2020 campaign website, including in the version in Spanish. The campaign website of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has a brief, generic section on the island. California Sen. Kamala Harris does not have a section on Puerto Rico on her campaign site. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg mentions the U.S. territory in a section on his campaign website in which he advocates for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia to have political representation in Congress.

These campaigns did not respond to requests by CBS News to elaborate on their platforms for Puerto Rico and reveal whether the candidates are planning to visit the island during the campaign.

González, the director of Power 4 Puerto Rico, said presidential candidates should be "concerned" about not making Puerto Rico an integral part of their campaigns because Puerto Ricans living in the mainland U.S. have been a "critical force in exerting political pressure" in recent years.

Although Puerto Ricans living on the island can only only vote in party primaries and not the general election, González said the large and growing Puerto Rican diaspora in the mainland is becoming an important voting bloc and can have some sway in national elections — particularly in battleground states like Florida.

One of the demands her group is making is for White House hopefuls to vouch their support for a legally-binding referendum that triggers a change in the island's political status if Puerto Ricans vote in favor of doing so once again. In the past seven years, Puerto Rico has held two referendums on the status of the island. In both cases, voters opted for statehood, but the results were symbolic because any change in territorial status requires congressional approval.

González said it is not enough for Democrats to condemn President Trump's rhetoric on Puerto Rico or his administration's "botched" response to the 2017 hurricanes.

"You think you're progressive? What are you going to bring for Puerto Rico's situation?" she said.

First published on June 7, 2019 / 9:27 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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