The two-day Democratic presidential debate hosted in Miami ended on Thursday without addressing issues affecting Puerto Rico, even though Puerto Ricans on the island and the mainland are able to vote in presidential primaries and an estimated 1.2 million live in Florida.
According to Erica Gonzalez, director of Power4PuertoRico, the organization has “had conversations with several of the campaigns” since the coalition released an open letter earlier this year outlining the topics they are asking candidates to address.
Of the 24 Democrats running for president, only 13 have taken stances on issues around the island’s territorial status (including possible statehood) and the ongoing financial crisis and hurricane recovery, among other matters, according to the group who has been keeping track of candidates under the #ShowUSYourPRPolicy campaign.
While Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont “have offered a vision for helping Puerto Rico through major issues like its unaudited debt, no candidate has released a comprehensive plan,” Gonzalez told NBC News via email.
Except for the border crisis surrounding immigration, the debates didn't touch on other salient issues regarding the Caribbean and Latin America, including the ongoing crisis in Venezuela and U.S. relations with Cuba. This, despite the fact the debates took place in South Florida, which is majority Latino and where these topics are front and center for many voters.
Even though the coalition is demanding candidates pay attention to dozens of issues, a handful of them are at the top of their list.
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The group has been urging candidates to publicly support “full participation of island residents in critical federal anti-poverty programs,” such as Medicaid and food stamps. Since Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and not a state, it does not get the same federal funding and instead manages these programs through block grants. Health care spending, for example, has been one of the island's biggest costs, since they get substantially less money than states do.
Puerto Ricans and allies in this effort are also calling for parity on the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, and a repeal of the century-old Jones Act, which raises the cost of imported goods to Puerto Rico by limiting foreign ships from going there; only American-built vessels and crews can deliver shipments to the island. In addition, they back a Marshall Plan-type mobilization to rebuild after Hurricane Maria, which led to the deaths of at least 2,975 people.
In May, Warren released a “comprehensive debt relief” plan for Puerto Rico to restructure approximately $120 billion of debt and pension obligations on the same day she reintroduced a bill that could help achieve such restructuring. The legislation was co-sponsored by fellow senators and presidential candidates Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California and Sanders.
At least eight candidates have weighed in on Puerto Rico’s territorial status debate.
Booker, Castro, Warren, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke have said they support Puerto Rico’s “right to self-determination” while former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and entrepreneur Andrew Yang support statehood.
While Puerto Rican residents can’t vote in presidential elections, they can, as U.S. citizens, vote in presidential primaries, meaning that Puerto Rico could give Democratic candidates a boost in rising above an already crowded field.
Charlie Rodriguez, chair of the Democratic Party in Puerto Rico, told NBC News that Puerto Rican officials have been working on legislation to move up its 2020 primary date, now set for early June, to March 29.