Joe Biden is bulking up his policy commitments to Puerto Rican voters in Florida, as he tries to build support among Latinos in one of the most competitive states in the presidential race.
In a plan released before his Tuesday visit to Kissimmee, Biden detailed a recovery plan for Puerto Rico, which has struggled to rebuild after a major economic crisis, hurricanes Irma and Maria, and widespread earthquakes earlier this year. The majority of Hurricane Maria evacuees who left the island have settled in Central Florida.
Biden's plan, and comments he made in Kissimmee, went further than he'd gone to that point: He laid out a proposal to end federally imposed austerity measures in Puerto Rico and forgive some of the island’s debt, and he said he personally supports statehood for the island, though he prefers to leave the question up to Puerto Ricans.
Biden’s visit to Florida came as polls find him ahead of Trump among Latinos in the state, but trailing Hillary Clinton at the same stage of the 2016 election. Trump ultimately won the state by a margin of just 1.2% in 2016. Florida is home to nearly one million people of Puerto Rican descent, including hundreds of thousands who moved to the state after Hurricane Maria tore through the island. According to a 2018 paper from the Pew Research Center, the state has seen a 6.2% increase in Latino voter registrations since 2016, bringing the total to 2.1 million. Puerto Ricans accounted for around 31% of potential Latino voters in the state, whether or not they’re registered — the same as the number of potential Cuban voters, according to the researchers.
“Donald Trump doesn’t seem to grasp that the people of Puerto Rico are American citizens already and they deserve to have leadership in government that understands that in America there is no room for the idea of second-class citizens,” Biden said at the Hispanic Heritage Month event at Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee.
The former vice president may have an edge among Puerto Rican voters in Florida partly because of Trump’s flippant response to various crises in Puerto Rico, including the number of people who died as a result of Hurricane Maria and the inadequate federal response. An August poll by Democratic pollster EquisLabs found that among 1,081 Latinos polled in Florida, 61% of those who identified as Puerto Ricans preferred Biden, compared to 28% who back Trump.
Both parties attempted to attract new Puerto Rican voters in Florida during the 2018 midterms — Latino turnout overall in the state did increase between the 2014 and 2018 midterms and between the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections. But, the Orlando Sentinel reported, early voter data in 2018 suggested that evacuees turned out in lower numbers than other Latino voters, perhaps in part because they had immediate concerns, especially finding secure housing, to consider in the aftermath of the hurricanes.
“I think he has a lot of work to do with folks in Florida,” said Julio López Varona, co-director of community dignity campaigns for the progressive Center for Popular Democracy, adding that the new recovery plan is “a step in the right direction.”
“Florida has 1 million Puerto Ricans, and these Puerto Ricans have more of a bootstrap-minded mentality and tend to be a little bit more conservative. How does he improve people's lives in Kissimmee? And I think there has to be a case made for Puerto Ricans who want to come back and what can be done about that,” he said.
For one Latino activist who has been working with the Puerto Rican diaspora in Central Florida, Biden’s visit and newly released plan was welcome but should have come sooner, especially as COVID has worsened an already dicey situation for Puerto Rican families in recent months. She added, though, that the Trump campaign doesn’t even have a specific plan for Puerto Rico, and that his administration let Puerto Ricans down by not having a plan for them after the hurricane, either.
“This generation of Puerto Ricans have been struggling,” said Maria Revelles, Florida state director for Vamos4PR, a coalition of community groups advocating for Puerto Ricans. “This was not a planned move, they lost everything on the island.”
She said she thinks it’s going to be a challenge to get people out to vote amid health concerns over the ongoing pandemic, but that Puerto Ricans on the island are used to a culture of being very engaged with voting.
“I think that people have to understand Puerto Ricans come from a very high voting culture. On the island everybody votes, 99% of people vote. Right now you read stories about people in line to register to vote,” she said.
Puerto Ricans who move to the mainland aren’t automatically affiliated with either Democrats or Republicans, she said, because the party system is entirely different on the island, with the issue of statehood for Puerto Rico being one of the main issues that divides the two major parties there. To that end, she said, it was wise for Biden to emphasize that he supports self-determination for the people of Puerto Rico.
“The Puerto Ricans that are here in Orlando, besides the Puerto Rico issues, their issues are like every other working group. They want affordable housing, they want fair wages, they want healthcare, that none of those things are traditionally in the GOP platform either,” she said.
Revelles added that she appreciated that the Biden campaign didn’t pick just any Latino celebrities for Tuesday night’s event, but Ricky Martin in particular, who Puerto Ricans have seen taking action to help communities on the island after the hurricane and to support the protests that ousted former governor Ricardo Rosselló last year.
PROMESA, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, was signed into law by then-president Barack Obama in 2016 and established a federally appointed fiscal control board (the Fiscal Oversight Management Board) to approve Puerto Rico’s state budgets, and with the power to put in place austerity measures.
The conditions imposed by the fiscal control board have led to major cuts in public education, infrastructure spending, and pensions on Puerto Rico, and residents say it’s made recovering from the series of disasters even harder.
López Varona, of the Center for Popular Democracy, said the Biden team had been in touch with them as they formulated the recovery plan, and though it doesn’t abolish PROMESA as the group had wanted, the Biden team took many of their other requests on board — particularly the call to end austerity measures.
“It shows that he’s really listening,” said López Varona. “There’s also protection of pension holders in Puerto Rico and then there’s accountability for the FOMB and a clear stance against austerity. If there’s a beating drum, that's the thing we’ve been saying for the past four years. Generally, we think it's a step in the right direction.”
Biden’s plan would go a long way toward fulfilling some important measures Puerto Rican activists have been calling for since 2016, particularly an audit of Puerto Rico’s $72 billion debt, much of which activists argue was issued by predatory lenders who knew the island authorities could not pay it back, and some of which was issued in violation of debt limits in the Puerto Rico Constitution.
“I’m running to be president of all Americans, including 3 million Americans in Puerto Rico … I’m not going to suggest that we sell or trade, as was mentioned earlier, Puerto Rico. I'm not going to throw paper towels at people whose lives have just been devastated by a hurricane. That was mortifying. The world saw that,” Biden said at the event on Tuesday.
The proposal includes measures to increase funding for Puerto Rico’s food stamps program, which has come close to running out of funding multiple times in recent years, increased federal funding for public education, and moves to put funding for Puerto Rico’s Medicare and Medicaid programs on par with the rest of the US.
The island’s electrical grid, which was decimated during Hurricane Maria, remains fragile and incomplete nearly three years later, and is frequently knocked out by passing storms. Biden’s plan includes “a full recovery and infrastructure reconstruction to modern standards.”
The electrical grid failing again is a constant fear for people who lived for months without power, said Revelles, and Biden addressing it directly in his plan is significant for her. Beyond that, she said, she appreciates the campaign’s plan to address climate change and rejoin the Paris Agreement.
“Puerto Ricans know we are at the will of climate change,” she said. “Some of the survivors of Hurricane Maria who moved here do Identify themselves as climate change refugees.”