Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló on Hurricane Maria: I Own Up to My Mistakes

Puerto Rico recently made headlines 12 months after Hurricane Maria barreled through the island. Last month, President Donald Trump called San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz “totally incompetent,” reigniting a feud in his attempt to defend the government agencies and his administration’s handling of recovery efforts. In response, Cruz said, "He never got it. He will never get it."  

Setting heated exchanges aside, the role of Governor Ricardo Rosselló also came under fresh scrutiny. In the aftermath of Maria, he attempted to take a conciliatory approach toward the administration. A month after the catastrophe, Trump gave himself a score of “10” on Maria’s response, while Rosselló told reporters at the White House that “the president answered all of our petitions.”

GettyImages-897259514 Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló sat down with Newsweek to talk about the island's recovery efforts. Alex Wong/Getty Images

However, the Puerto Rican government also has faced harsh criticism over its role in the island’s recovery. In an interview with Newsweek last month, Mayor Cruz said the governor “did not ask enough.” In August, a Puerto Rico–funded report by George Washington University revealed that nearly 3,000 people had died between September 2017 and February 2018—a stark difference from the official death toll of 64 Rosselló adamantly defended for months. The same study discovered gaps "in the death certification and public communication processes" and found that "the risk of dying was 60 percent higher for individuals who lived in the poorest municipalities." 

Rosselló’s relationship with Trump turned sour in recent days. While the president said his administration's response to Maria was “an unsung success,” Rosselló, 39, said that U.S.-Puerto Rico relations could not be considered successful because Puerto Ricans had not attained the same “inalienable rights” granted to U.S. citizens. “[Puerto Ricans] have favored statehood on two occasions,” he said, according to Puerto Rico’s newspaper El Nuevo Día. “Trivializing this is a lack of respect to the people of Puerto Rico, and we’re not going to accept that.”

A year after Maria and Irma, Rosselló wants to revamp Puerto Rico's economy by way of tourism and renewable energy. During a visit to New York in late September, he sat down with Newsweek to talk about Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts and why it’s important for the island to become the 51st state.

You are an advocate of Puerto Rico statehood. The island would receive benefits from joining the U.S. such as full participation or parity of federal benefits. But those who don’t support this idea say Puerto Ricans will have a hard time paying federal, state and municipal taxes. How to reconcile both sides of the issue?  

On the economic front, it’s very simple. We get much more for being a state than what we would give back, so that’s easy to reconcile. The second part is the political power, and you can’t understate or put a price tag on what it means to have actual participation. As a matter of fact, the results of not having it—you’re seeing it now, in the slower and delayed recovery for Puerto Rico. To me, it is quite clear: Puerto Rico needs to change its current status and needs to go to statehood. There are other alternatives, but certainly, the current one [U.S. commonwealth] is not an option, and in my view this is the best one, and the one people prefer is statehood.

How would you explain to a U.S. citizen living on the mainland the importance of incorporating Puerto Rico as a U.S. state?

Well, I see Puerto Rico as the most exciting place to invest right now. We are the connector of the Americas. We already added a lot of value to the U.S., but I can see it as the center for diplomatic relationships between South and North America. I see it as the center for economic activity, and certainly, as was the case of Hawaii, for example, the bigger economy drives forward the smaller economy. There are synergies to becoming a state and that would benefit the average citizen. But I think the most important question is, are we satisfied as a democracy in having colonial territories in the 21st century? Are we satisfied with treating more than 3 million U.S. citizens differently just because of the place that they live? The answer is no.  

But months prior to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, only 500,000 of the 2.6 million Puerto Ricans participated in a plebiscite to support statehood. Do you think Puerto Ricans have lost interest in statehood, or have their views changed after Maria?

I think that there’s more interest than ever in statehood. I think that when you see national polls, you see the tendency clearly towards statehood and away from the other options [commonwealth or independence]. You can’t just take the last plebiscite by itself. There was another plebiscite executed four and a half years previous to that, where there was over 80 percent participation. Statehood won with 60-some percent of the vote, and the current status was rejected. The only reason folks decided not to participate in the plebiscite last year was that they knew what the outcome was going to be: that people were going to support statehood. Yes, support for statehood is big.

Puerto Rico's nonvoting member of Congress, Jenniffer González-Colon, submitted a proposal so that the island becomes the 51st state, and 53 Republicans and Democrats are co-sponsoring it. However, Congress has largely avoided the discussion over statehood. Do you think Congress will listen this time?

It’s a different platform. They have been avoiding it because they could; they have put it as a second- or third-level issue. Now, after the passing of the storm in Puerto Rico, the conversation has elevated to a point where people have a different view on Puerto Rico, and I will give you an example. Prior to the storm, only 20 percent of U.S. citizens in the mainland knew that we were citizens, and now, more than 90 percent do. Once you create that consciousness, this has become a hot-button issue for politics. It is right time to get some action on this issue, and the question still remains: Do you want to remain a jurisdiction that has a colonial territory while claiming to be the standard bearer of democracy? The answer should be no.   

You are championing recovery efforts but FEMA has decided to halt the completion of funds that could help in reconstruction initiatives. Why is this detrimental to Puerto Rico’s future?

Our process with FEMA has been marred with bureaucracy. Part of the importance of FEMA in this process is that they were the first line of defense in the recovery, making sure that people have rooms and that adequate resources for an emergency are executed. By delaying this process, you’re delaying the recovery and eventual reconstruction of Puerto Rico. We have very specific asks: Eliminate the excessive bureaucracy that has been imposed on Puerto Rico as opposed to Texas and Florida. Allow us to have 100 percent of the cost share that is on the president’s desk. We’re asking for his consideration here, and this is nothing different from what happened in Louisiana with Katrina [in 2005]. Enable us to push forward on the recovery, because things need to move faster on FEMA’s side.

Did you ask FEMA to make an exemption of the Stafford Act and the Jones Act, which restricts the upgrade of damaged infrastructure after a natural disaster and prohibits the docking of non-U.S. ships into Puerto Rico’s ports, respectively?   

Well, they already did the test study for the exemption of the Jones Act, so that certainly would be helpful. I think there are many things that need to be changed in the Stafford Act. It’s very restraining and limiting, and for devastations of a certain magnitude it really inhibits the progress moving forward, so there needs to be a broader discussion on how we make the Stafford Act better, how we amend it and how we respond to these devastations.

There is no doubt in my mind that with climate change, this is going to be a significant issue that we’re facing not only in Puerto Rico but in the rest of the nation and the rest of the world. There are going to be side effects such as erosion and, of course, the impacts that we’re seeing. We need to calibrate for those, mitigate and build resilient [infrastructure], so that’s part of my commitment to Puerto Rico. We want to make sure we use this opportunity not only to rebuild but to do it smarter, and innovate.

You are currently at odds with the Fiscal Control Board—a group of seven members appointed by the White House and approved by the PROMESA Act of 2016 to oversee Puerto Rico’s debt crisis—because they haven’t agreed on some legislative measures, such as defending retirees’ pensions and a reduction on financial burden for municipalities. Do you believe the board presents a hurdle to your job as a governor since much of the island’s financial decisions have to go through them?

I recognize the role of the board. We have many differences, and I will fight those differences. From a philosophical perspective, and even prior [to the board’s establishment], I have always opposed the notion of the board. It’s nondemocratic; it’s imposing certain people that are working part-time to be part of a very significant and robust decision-making process. So again, similar to my view with colonialism, this is just another outcome of colonialism. That’s another idea or reason we should veer away from it. No state would have fiscal oversight.

Detractors say the board must leave PR because it doesn’t solve underlying issues such as unemployment. Do you think the Fiscal Control Board should leave Puerto Rico?

Whether by another action or by our own, once we get budgets balanced, then the oversight board leaves. I think, again, it is something that I don’t think works. The board was there before I became governor. I’m working with it, but I’ll fight it every time I have the opportunity.

It does seem that you and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz concur on several aspects, particularly renewable energy and the removal of U.S. colonization. So why is there a political rift?

We have different worldviews. We have ways of getting our messages across, so that’s another. My way of operating is execution and getting results, while hers is more media-driven. I believe Puerto Rico should be the connector of the Americas and become a U.S. state, but she doesn’t. I believe we should have free market flow and economic development in Puerto Rico, but she opposes it. We have very different worldviews, but as I said in the process of rebuilding Puerto Rico, I’m always willing to work with anybody.

Cruz does agree with you in the mobilization of more than 5 million Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. to vote against legislators who forgot about the island. You said last year that Puerto Ricans should “shake up the midterm elections in states ranging from Florida to California.” Are you still standing by that claim? 

Of course, and it is consistent with my worldview. It is not consistent with Cruz’s, as she doesn’t believe in a relationship between the island and the U.S. I think that Puerto Ricans who live in the States and have moved by virtue of lack of opportunities or otherwise can be our political muscle, as it should be.

I will be very much involved in the midterm elections, showcasing that Puerto Ricans will be the determinant factor in those midterm elections. My prediction is that you’ll see that many elections will tilt one way or the other by virtue of the Puerto Rican vote, and more so than just the absolute value of the 5.6 million Puerto Ricans, because there are lots of friends of Puerto Rico, too.

You’re a Democrat. However, there has been some criticism that you have sided with President Donald Trump during the initial recovery efforts, especially after his statement that Puerto Ricans had "thrown our budget out of whack" in the wake of the crisis, as well as the way he treated them with the infamous paper towel tossing. How do you respond to that?

Again, I don’t object to criticism; I welcome it. But I tell you what my role is. The easy thing to do would be to stand up, kick and scream and get nothing done for Puerto Rico. I chose to open a channel of communication, even if the president is from a different party than I am. I chose to establish a dialogue and collaboration with federal agencies, so that has been my focus. I think that right now we are in a world where there’s a lot of noise, a lot of screaming and kicking, and that doesn’t get very much done. I think we need to execute, and the best way to get results is by establishing your case, having an open dialogue and do it right by your people.

You are in New York to promote tourism development opportunities in Puerto Rico, but some hotels need to be rebuilt in the Old San Juan, the electrical grid is not ready, and some areas still have blue tarps installed by FEMA. Moreover, some of these companies bring their own staff abroad. How can tourism resolve poverty and brain drain?

There are many things that need to be done in order to resolve these issues, but tourism is a critical component. We see a path to grow within five or seven years in doubling the output in tourism in Puerto Rico. We’ve done several things to do that: We’re taking the promotion of tourism outside of the government, and we’re doing it with the industry so that stakeholders can drive that and have some consistency. Also, we’re creating Puerto Rico as a multiport destination so that flights and boats can come from many different jurisdictions.

Many of the hotels that still haven’t opened are because they’re making remodeling efforts, so many of them will be opening in next quarter and some of them will open the following year, and new hotels are coming to Puerto Rico. We have embarked on transforming [our] energy grid from one that is probably one of the worst in our region to what we aspire to be a model in all of the region and perhaps the world—one that has more than 40 percent renewables and that can be cost-effective and reliable. We want a system that can have a customer-centric approach, solving the customer’s needs.

We see it as part of the job creation to get our economy flowing. This is not the only way to generate employment but it's certainly an important part, and what we wanted to do here in New York was let all the stakeholders know that Puerto Rico is open for business and that we're receiving tourism. It is, in my view, the most exciting place to invest so that we can attract capital, visitors and development.

You once said that one of your greatest regrets was not asking for a more accurate death toll.  Twelve months after Maria, what other regrets do you have?

I made mistakes and I own them up. There are two types of leadership in that sense: You can either ignore your mistakes and keep on making them, or you identify them and try to fix them. There are many things, we faced a devastation unlike any other, and we learned from that. I estimated that the electric grid was ready by mid-December, but we didn’t achieve that goal, so that was a mistake on my part.

Our protocols, not only the death-toll protocol but just the readiness for hurricanes in Puerto Rico—and in the United States, which is very concerning—were never prepared for an event of this magnitude. Now, moving towards the future, we are prepared for the worst-case scenario. We only had one distribution site of commodities in Puerto Rico, and now we have nine across the island so that they can be better suited for. There have been mistakes, and my commitment is to own them up and fix them.

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