Puerto Rico governor puts spotlight on hurricane recovery at Trump speech

Puerto Rico governor puts spotlight on hurricane recovery at Trump speech
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Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló traveled to Washington to attend President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump defends Stephanopolous interview Trump defends Stephanopolous interview Buttigieg on offers of foreign intel: 'Just call the FBI' MORE's State of the Union address Tuesday, with his attendance meant to signal to Trump and fellow Democrats that he intends to keep the U.S. territory a top national issue.
 
Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw US women's soccer team reignites equal pay push MORE (D-N.Y.) invited the Puerto Rico governor to be in the room for Trump's speech in order "to highlight that Puerto Rico’s hurricane recovery is far from over."
 
Puerto Rico has slowly inched forward in its recovery from Hurricane Maria in September 2017, while dealing with the aftermath of a financial crisis that hit its nadir in May of the same year, when the U.S. territory declared a bankruptcy-like moratorium on debt payments.
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Nearly 18 months after the hurricane, the Caribbean island continues to make headlines on issues as different as its debt refinancing process and the right of Puerto Rican residents to receive federal aid.
 
"You have some strange occurrences that happen byproduct of the territorial condition in Puerto Rico. As we maintain that, you're going to continue on seeing all these bizarre occurrences," Rosselló told The Hill.
 
It's no coincidence, according to Rosselló, that the issue of status comes up in almost every story linked to the island.
 
Rosselló, a top proponent of Puerto Rico statehood, calls the current territorial status a "geopolitical black hole."
 
"The idea is that in a black hole, the laws of physics don't apply. In my view, the laws of global governance in Puerto Rico -- they're stuck in another time," he said.
 
Rosselló's presence at Trump's speech is meant to convey that idea both to political allies and opponents.
 
As a centrist Democrat, Rosselló has kept a closer relationship with Trump than most politicians in his party.
 
But that proximity hasn't always translated into equal federal treatment, in Rosselló's view.
 
"[The Federal Emergency Management Agency] has been slow, they've put obstacles in Puerto Rico that they haven't placed anywhere else in the United States, and it has delayed our recovery significantly," he said.
 
Rosselló added that the disbursement of FEMA funds is usually carried out by individual states, but in Puerto Rico, the federal agency has taken charge. 
 
"The result is everything is slower, so much so that if you compare today after 16 months of the hurricane in Puerto Rico and 16 months after Katrina, they had over 9,500 projects moving forward in Louisiana, whereas you only have 44 in Puerto Rico," said Rosselló.
 
Still, Rosselló is seeking another meeting with Trump, whom he last met in the Oval Office in October 2017.
 
"When I met with [Trump] in the Oval Office, he asked me how I would grade him, and I said we can't be graded right now. It was true, he had been open to my petitions, but this is a long term recovery and we need to be evaluated on that," said Rosselló.
 
In inviting Rosselló to the State of the Union address, Schumer remarked on the importance of a long-term view of Puerto Rico's recovery.
 
"His presence will be an important reminder to President Trump and Congressional Republicans of our duty to our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico still working to rebuild their lives and communities, 16 months later," said Schumer.
 
Rosselló added that it's his responsibility to convince fellow Democrats -- traditionally divided over statehood -- that the status issue is at the center of Puerto Rico's problems.
 
He pointed to his colleague, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R), as the ally who's in charge of pointing Republicans in the direction of statehood.
 
Rosselló and González-Colón are both members of the New Progressive Party (PNP) in Puerto Rico, but belong to different parties at a national level.
 
The two met in Washington on Tuesday to discuss reconstruction and status legislation.
"Jenniffer is my partner, so much so, she's a Republican, I'm a Democrat, and we ran on the same ticket. It's hard for folks to understand that, but it's important to state," Rosselló told The Hill.
 
"Historically what has happened is you've gotten some Republican support and some Democratic support for finishing this, but you've gotten some opposition as well," he added.
 
Progressive Democrats, most recently, have been most reluctant to take a position on the status issue, as the island's left has long argued for either the status quo or independence.
 
Rosselló is a staunch opponent of that position.
 
"From my end, the way I see it is that for Democrats, inequality and battling inequality is one of the main staples of our identity. To me it's completely inconsistent to support a state of inequality while you're arguing against it elsewhere," he said.
 
And Rosselló believes his presence in Washington will help sway Democrats who've not taken a stand, or who are new to the issue, to think about how territorial status affects other issues in Puerto Rico.
 
"I give them all the space, 'you find the argument that's consistent with us having second-class citizenship and inequality: Go nuts and support it.' But nobody has until this point and I don't think anybody will," said Rosselló.
 
"The important thing is maintaining momentum, keeping the pressure on so that people have to answer what their position is on Puerto Rico and then I think we'll get clarity," he added.