As Puerto Rico works to recover from last year’s devastating hurricane, the island’s government faces challenges at it architects a powerful recovery for its citizens.
President Donald J. Trump, however, has been criticized by many for his lackluster support for the Puerto Rican recovery. He has also announced his resistance to the potential of statehood of the island territory.
“The short of it, of course, is that he’s wrong,” Ricardo Rosselló, the governor of Puerto Rico, told a standing-room-only crowd at Skift Global Forum in New York on Wednesday night. “We’re talking about U.S. citizens here. Prior to the storm, only about 20 percent of people in the mainland knew that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens. After the storm, more than 90 percent know that.”
Rosselló has overseen the recovery and is frustrated by the resistance he has faced in rebuilding Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. He compared the treatment of Puerto Rico to the greater issues of discrimination based on race and gender that affect the greater U.S.
He made a case that the reluctance of the U.S. to solve its domestic and internal issues reflects negatively on the country as it exerts influence globally.
“I’m shocked and against the President’s statements; why should three million U.S. citizens have to pay for a personal difference he has with someone else?” asked Rosselló. “This is the biggest, most significant civil rights issue of this time. The U.S. is going all around the world and in the [United Nations] this last week saying that we are the standard bearer of democracy. How can we go to Cuba, Venezuela, Afghanistan and preach democracy when we’re not even doing back home? We have three million disenfranchised U.S. citizens… it is one of the last remnants of our colonial past that the world needs to eradicate.”
For those on the mainland who have become interested in the struggles of Puerto Rico, he said the comparison between mainland recovery efforts and the state of Puerto Rico should make the situation obvious.
“People started seeing the recovery, and they noticed that the recovery was different than in Florida and Texas,” said Rosselló. “I’m asking everyone to put up or shut up… if you oppose Puerto Rico, then we will oppose you.”
Puerto Ricans themselves have supported statehood in recent plebiscites. The political tide may be turning, though, with many suffering the effects of the tepid recovery efforts. While Puerto Rico is also struggling through a financial crisis, that shouldn’t preclude the island from receiving government aid and support from U.S. businesses.
In terms of the recovery itself, the focus is on building a world-class energy grid that can withstand future weather events while encouraging a culture of business innovation to attract more businesses to the island.
Rosselló also turned the event into a pitch to the room full of travel leaders: “I hope you take this as an invitation to come to Puerto Rico, to see the opportunities … to be part of this strong rebuild.”
He said visitation had increased 13 percent from 2017 just before the storm to the same time this year. And the island is making changes to cruise ports and airports to accommodate more, including discussions about a second port.
“Disasters are financial situation agnostic,” said Rosselló. “They are ethnicity agnostic, they are location agnostic. A disaster happened in Puerto Rico and our response should be agnostic. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case because of the second class treatment.”
Rosselló went on to say that tourism only makes up about 6.5 percent of Puerto Rico’s economy — a number he thinks could be much higher.
“When I was running for office, we saw this as one of the critical opportunities for us to showcase our culture,” he said. “We saw that we have a unique window to differentiate from others and extend the length of stay and have more folks come to Puerto Rico.”
That thinking played into the decision to create a destination marketing organization outside of the government so new administrations would not force a change in direction that could stifle tourism.