The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico is collapsing under the weight of tens of billions of dollars of debt and there is no end in sight for the economic pain. The island has the highest unemployment rate in the nation, at over 12 percent, and a higher rate of poverty than any U.S. state. Home foreclosures are up 89 percent from 2008. More than 100 schools and a children’s hospital have been forced to close. As it faces an outbreak of the Zika virus, the island is losing, on average, a doctor a day.
The situation could deteriorate further if the territory defaults on another debt payment on July 1. Yet bills in Congress to allow the island to restructure this debt have stalled, largely due to Republican opposition.
Without federal relief for their economic woes, the island is hemorrhaging its population. Nearly 100,000 people moved from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland last year alone, and more than 360,000 people left during the four years before that. Expert demographers estimate that the territory could lose as much as 8 percent of its population of 3.5 million over the next few years, if the economic crisis continues.
Though U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico can only vote in presidential primaries, not the general election. But when they move stateside, they gain full voting rights, and could upend the political calculus for both parties this November.
A growing majority of them have made their homes in the key swing state of Florida. The Sunshine State’s Puerto Rican population swelled to more than 1 million people over the past few years, and is on track to soon outnumber the Cuban American community that has long defined Southern Florida politics. And unlike the state’s Cuban Americans, the Puerto Rican population is not “reliably Republican.” In fact, they are helping Florida Democrats pull ahead in the race to register voters for November.
“There is a huge possibility that if Puerto Ricans continue to arrive here, Florida may cease to be a battleground state,” said Phillip Arroyo, the former chair of the Young Democrats of America’s Hispanic Caucus and a Florida resident originally from Puerto Rico. “The Republican party has made a devastating mistake of completely ignoring not only Puerto Rico’s financial crisis but Hispanic issues in general.”
Andres Lopez, an attorney in Puerto Rico and a Democratic National Committee superdelegate, agreed. He told ThinkProgress that millions of Puerto Ricans both on the island and the mainland are growing increasingly frustrated with the Republican-controlled Congress, especially because their lack of statehood means they have no vote on Capitol Hill.
“On this issue, Congress has felt a special kind of license to take their time and act when they’re good and ready,” he said. “We’ve already had one pretty massive default on the books and there’s another one forthcoming. Yet Congress doesn’t seem moved to act expeditiously. And this is happening without any Puerto Rican representation at the table, which is incomprehensible elsewhere in our democracy. We are disenfranchised and dis-empowered, with these mostly white guys far away — since Congress is predominantly white — making decisions that will fundamentally impact every aspect of our lives.”
Lopez, who worked on President Obama’s 2008 campaign, said Republican foot-dragging on aid for Puerto Rico will have “unintended consequences.”
“They’re creating anger in Florida, the state where Puerto Ricans are going to have the most power going forward,” he said. “Now that there will soon be more Puerto Ricans in Florida than Cubans, it’s going to upend what people have thought of that state. If they turn out to express themselves at the ballot box, the Puerto Rico issue is going to take on the political power of the Cuba issue.”
Frustration with Republican inaction was palpable outside the GOP’s Miami debate in March, where a large group of Puerto Rican residents took to the streets in protest.
“They’ve forgotten about us. They ignore us. They’ve turned their back on us,” Kissimmee resident Madeline Ortiz told ThinkProgress in Spanish. “But now, we Puerto Ricans are starting to vote and more. We’re going to show them. If they don’t talk about this issue, we Puerto Ricans will not support them.”
Ortiz, who moved from Puerto Rico 20 years ago, says she has been helping register hundreds of Puerto Rican voters in her community and has worked to educate them about the Republican Party’s silence on the debt issue. “We have to vote so they pay attention to us,” she said.
Over the past few years, the hedge funds that hold the majority of the island’s debt and are profiting from the crisis have been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying Congress, pushing for members to vote against giving Puerto Rico the power to declare bankruptcy and restructure its debt. Some of these lobbyists are influential former members of Congress. Dark money groups like the Center for Individual Freedom are also blanketing the airwaves with ads attacking supporters of the debt relief bill, accusing them of “bailing out” Puerto Rico at the expense of “savers and seniors” on the mainland.
In the face of this onslaught, Republicans in Congress have been divided on how and when to assist Puerto Rico with its mountain of debt, with some opposing any aid for the territory at all. Yet the two parties’ likely presidential nominees are offering Puerto Rican voters a clear choice.
Trump’s penchant for labeling Latino immigrants as drug dealers and rapists, vowing mass deportations, and offering half-hearted pandering may only be digging the Republicans’ deeper into a hole with Puerto Rican voters.
“It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that those [Puerto Ricans] already here see the GOP as synonymous to racism, extremism, and anti-Puerto Rico sentiment,” Arroyo said. “You think they would have learned from the 2012 election, but instead they let extremists hijack the party. That’s why the Democrats are on their way to winning the White House for a third consecutive term.”
Top Republican strategists warned earlier this year that Donald Trump will doom the GOP with Latino voters for “at least a generation” — just as Latinos are becoming one of the fastest growing and most influential voting blocs. To win the White House in November, Trump may need anywhere between 42 and 47 percent of the Latino vote, especially in key battleground states like Virginia, Ohio, New Mexico, Florida, Nevada, and Colorado, according to the polling group Latino Decisions. The GOP won less than 30 percent in 2012.
A national poll released in April found that 79 percent of Latino voters had a “very unfavorable” opinion of Trump, and 87 percent regarded him as generally unfavorable.
As Republicans, Democrats, unions, Latino advocacy groups, and the Koch brothers all scramble to register the ever-expanding Puerto Rican community in central Florida, strategists say that even if they don’t turn out in large numbers this November, the writing is on the wall.
“There is no path to the presidency that doesn’t run through Florida,” Lopez told ThinkProgress. “Looking beyond 2016, this is the type of issue that will earn party loyalty potentially for a generation.”