As It Happens

Trump treats Puerto Rico like a 'doormat', says lawmaker pushing for statehood

The Democratic Representative from Florida argues that the way President Trump is treating Puerto Rico is more evidence that the island territory should become a state.

The U.S. president views Puerto Ricans as 'second-class citizens', says Congressman Darren Soto

Jennice Fuentes, right, of Power 4 Puerto Rico, speaks outside the White House last September in Washington, D.C., during a vigil commemorating the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)
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U.S. Democrats and Republicans have not been able to agree on a package that would provide disaster-relief funding for Puerto Rico. And that has prompted President Trump to lash out on Twitter, calling Puerto Rico's politicians "incompetent and corrupt."
    
The island has been an unincorporated territory of the U.S. since 1899 — which means its citizens are Americans, but cannot vote in presidential elections. Puerto Ricans have long been divided over whether to pursue statehood or seek full independence from the U.S.

Democratic Congressman Darren Soto of Florida wants Puerto Rico to get statehood. He spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off from Washington, D.C. Here is part of their conversation.

As you know, President Trump is on Twitter calling the Puerto Rican Mayor "crazed". The governor of Puerto Rico warned the White House, "If that bully gets close, I'll punch the bully in the mouth." What's going on once again between the White House and Puerto Rico?

Well, the president continues to treat Puerto Ricans on the island — Americans on the island — as second-class citizens. And this latest phrase is just atrocious and disheartening.

We're talking about remainder of the disaster relief. Puerto Rico has only received $10.5 billion in recovery and reconstruction dollars so far. 

Yet the president is coming up with these outlandish figures like, $91 billion, to try to sow division and hatred. And even some of his Republican fellow senators are getting very concerned about the rhetoric.

And of course, we Democrats outwardly condemn this attack on Americans down on my family's native island.

[President Trump] says he has "taken better care of Puerto Rico than any man ever." And he mentioned — you said the $91 billion that has been spent there — that there has never been more hurricane relief than any place in history. ... Is there even a grain of truth in this?

No, obviously not, given the round criticism he's received. But let's talk about the real facts: the highest death count in modern American history for disaster — nearly 3,000 people.

To put in perspective, Katrina — which was devastating — had 1,800 people who we lost, unfortunately in that disaster. Longest blackout in American history, since we've had electricity — seven to eight months, depending on the area. 

So this is what will define the disaster relief — not throwing paper towels, and not claiming to be the best thing that's ever happened to Puerto Rico. 

But this is why the Congress is taking it seriously. I wish there'd be less controversy in the Senate, but we in the House are united on this. But the president's stoking division and attacking his fellow Americans.

He is embarrassed about the truth that he led a terrible disaster relief effort as judged by the numbers. And now he takes it personally, because anytime anybody brings it up, he just does not want to believe the truth on this matter.

But the president is saying that he has no grudge against the people of Puerto Rico whom he calls "GREAT" — capital letters. But it's the politicians. And is it fair ... when the governor says, "I'll punch the bully in the mouth," or when Mayor Cruz takes him on? Is it possible that the politicians ... might back away a bit of the criticism and try and get that funding flowing?

Well, certainly I appreciate both Governor [Ricardo] Rosselló and Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz's emotions, and the fact that they're upset. They have dealt with a devastation that most Americans on the mainland have not experienced in generations — people by the thousands dying because they don't have access to health care.

They are speaking in the politics of outrage because the entire island is outraged by being forgotten. And the politics of division is only stoking that.

So, I mean, maybe they could choose more polite words to placate President Trump's ego. But it's a sad state of affairs that we can't express the honesty of a true devastation on the island simply because it may upset the president who has a fragile ego when it comes to the failed disaster relief that happened down there.

U.S. Rep Darren Soto, left, with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, centre, and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson at the Hilton Orlando Buena Vista Palace in July 2018. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel via Associated Press)

One of the things that you are positing is that maybe a partial solution is you want to see the island's colonial status come to an end. You say it's time to end the 120 years of injustice of Puerto Rico being a colony. How much support do you have from Puerto Rico? Do Puerto Ricans want to become the 51st state?

There have been two elections already where statehood prevailed. And we also see D.C. statehood moving forward here in the U.S. House.

And it's about respecting equality — since we're pushing for D.C,. we should be pushing for Puerto Rico as well.

You know, being caught between being a state and an independent nation is one of the fundamental reasons for all these problems. If Puerto Rico had two U.S. senators and four members of Congress, they wouldn't be treated like a doormat by President Trump. 

Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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