SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico's financial crisis loomed over dueling Friday campaign appearances by Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Marco Rubio, two presidential contenders with sharply different positions on a key issue for Puerto Rican voters whose influence is growing in U.S. politics.
In a speech delivered entirely in Spanish, the young Florida senator blamed Clinton supporters for the U.S. territory's economic problems as he railed against giving Puerto Rico bankruptcy protection to resolve a staggering $72 billion debt.
"The people who are rallying behind her today are the people who put Puerto Rico in this fiscal mess to begin with," Rubio told about 150 people crammed into an open-air restaurant in San Juan's gritty neighborhood of Santurce.
Rubio's appearance came shortly before Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, attended a round-table discussion about the island's health-care problems. some Republicans describe Clinton's support for giving Puerto Rico bankruptcy protection as a bailout.
When asked about Clinton at a brief news conference after his speech, Rubio said he didn't have details about her plan for Puerto Rico.
"I think it was on her server, and it was wiped clean," he jabbed, a reference to the Clinton email server that is now the subject of a federal investigation. He noted the island faces multiple challenges, but remained firm that allowing its municipalities and agencies to declare bankruptcy is not the answer.
"I don't believe Chapter 9 would solve Puerto Rico's problems," he said, adding that the island has spent more money than it had available. "Ultimately, if there is no other option left, Chapter 9 is a viable option at that point."
Clinton's planned focus on health care, instead of the island's financial crisis, sparked criticism ahead of her afternoon appearance.
Local Rep. Jose Enrique Melendez, of Puerto Rico's pro-statehood party, demanded that all presidential candidates who visit the U.S. territory publicly state their opinion regarding the island's future political status.
"It's time that Puerto Ricans start demanding respect," he said, and he later criticized Clinton for not addressing Puerto Rico's political status further.
"This sends a clear message on where she'll stand regarding Puerto Rico's problems if she's elected," Melendez said, "especially when the island is going through an economic crisis that has sparked a massive migration to the 50 states."
Residents of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens but can't vote for president. Yet the U.S. territory holds primary contests for both parties that give candidates a chance to connect with Hispanic voters across the nation.
Five million Puerto Ricans live on the U.S. mainland, including nearly 1 million in the key swing state of Florida, and they care about what happens back on the island.
Clinton soundly defeated then-Sen. Barack Obama in Puerto Rico's 2008 primary.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush visited in April before announcing his Republican presidential campaign and was warmly received as he praised the contributions of immigrants and endorsed statehood, a long-running issue for generations of Puerto Ricans, many of whom feel like second-class citizens because of their limited voting rights.
Martin O'Malley, a Democrat and former Maryland governor who visited last month, pledged to fight for equal treatment, noting that Puerto Rico gets lower Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates than the mainland, an issue also on Clinton's agenda.
The parade of presidential hopefuls to the territory speaks to the growing power of Puerto Rican voters on the mainland, especially in Florida, the top destination for those fleeing the island's 12 percent unemployment rate and nine-year economic slump. The governor declared the massive public debt unpayable and said it needs restructuring.
"It's an issue that hits close to home whether you live here or on the island," said Viviana Janer, 43, a Democrat from Kissimmee in central Florida. She was the winner among five candidates — all Puerto Ricans — who competed last year for a seat on the Osceola County Commission.
The arrival of more "Boricuas," the term Puerto Ricans affectionately call themselves, is changing the political equation in Florida, say political observers.
Historically, Puerto Ricans have sided with Democrats. But Republicans say they do see an opening, at least with recent arrivals, and have been going into Puerto Ricans communities for several years to woo potential voters.
Gregorio Matias, a 43-year-old police sergeant, said he decided to fully support Rubio on Friday after reading the Florida senator's op-ed opposing bankruptcy protection in the island's largest newspaper.
"I'm going to call all my relatives and tell them to vote for Rubio," he said, adding that they live in Florida, New York, New Jersey and Wisconsin. "Rubio offers what Puerto Rico has been waiting for: that we be treated as equals, not as third-class citizens."