Puerto Ricans weary of candidates parading island in search of votes, money

The Puerto Rican flag flies near the Capitol on July 1, 2015 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The Puerto Rican flag flies near the Capitol on July 1, 2015 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  (2015 Getty Images)

Promises, promises and more promises. That is how some Puerto Ricans have reacted to the blink-of-an-eye visits over the summer of presidential hopefuls Hillary Rodham Clinton, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Martin O'Malley, who came to the island to fundraise, collect delegates and harvest political goodwill with Puerto Rican voters on the mainland.

The island’s residents, struggling under the weight of a massive $72 billion debt, 12 percent unemployment and a population decline that surpasses the 1950s Great Migration, have been weary of these promises, certain they will probably be forgotten when the candidates set foot in Washington.

Aside from the candidates who have visited the island, others, including Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, have sent or plan to send strategists to Puerto Rico in the coming months. Bernie Sanders has been invited to visit.

“One has to be really credulous to think that giving money to any of the candidates involved in the Republican or Democratic primaries is going to help resolve the problems of Puerto Rico or that these candidates actually care an iota about resolving the status of the island or the massive debt,” said Julio Varela, a Puerto Rican philanthropist living in Florida. 

“They come looking for money in a country that is cracked and they offer nothing in exchange,” said Eileen Collins, a Puerto Rican who also lives in the United States. “And, in the face of this, the sad thing is there are still people who are willing to give them money.”

Due to the colonial status, Puerto Ricans do not vote in the presidential elections, but thousands vote in the primaries. The island has 55 delegates up for grabs.

But the Puerto Rican vote has become the glittering prize in the upcoming election for another reason: Five million islanders live in the United States, and more one million reside in Florida, a key swing state and the new metropolis of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. They are largely credited with helping deliver the swing state, and the election, to President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

About half of the “Mickeyricans” were born on the island and are recent immigrants. They care about what happens to Puerto Rico and vote accordingly.  

That is why Florida Senator Rubio, relatively unknown locally, sweltered in the Caribbean sun last month and spun the tale of being an immigrant’s son, while stating that he was against a financial bailout for the island. He took home $100,000.  

Clinton, a veteran of the Puerto Rican primaries, delivered a noncommittal “I will do everything possible” to resolve the acute financial crisis, but made a pointed reference to the importance of the Mickeyricans in the race for the White House.

“It always struck me as so indefensible that you can’t vote for president if you live here,” she said, with a hint of a smile. “But if you move to Florida – which, of course, I’m just naming a state – you can vote for president.”  Clinton walked away with $500,000. Bush made $80,000.

Carla Minet, director for Puerto Rico’s Center of Investigative Journalism, said it’s not just the aspiring presidents who are going to the island to make false promises.

 “Let’s look at Obama’s case. He did nothing about the status, nothing about the political prisoner Oscar Lopez, and he has done nothing about the precarious economic situation of the island,” she said.

She believes politicians from both parties are heading to Puerto Rico but taking it for granted.

“Anyone who thinks that these visits by these North American politicians to gather money in Puerto Rico have any impact other than maintaining the status quo that they and their parties represent,” she said, “is living in a fantasy land.”

Susanne Ramirez de Arellano is a freelance writer based in New York City. She is a former News Director for Univision Puerto Rico and has worked for ABC News, the Associated Press Television News in London and CNN International. She writes a Blog for www.magacin.com called Susanne en la Ciudad.

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