Puerto Rico's economy matters in the 2016 presidential race

Story highlights

  • Puerto Rico's economy is heading for a nosedive, and the territory is likely to default this year
  • Gretchen Sierra-Zorita: Presidential candidates who court Puerto Rican votes should help the territory

Gretchen Sierra-Zorita is a public policy and advocacy specialist working on media diversity issues for the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. She is curator of Puerto Rico En Serio, an online community focused on issues affecting Puerto Rico and the diaspora. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Every four years, U.S. presidential candidates take side trips to Puerto Rico in search of primary votes and campaign contributions. In the States, Puerto Ricans view these trips favorably. In the territory, U.S. citizens cannot vote for president but they can participate in presidential primaries and national party conventions. Jeb Bush has already visited the territory and Hillary Clinton will go there, too.

Visiting candidates support statehood or Puerto Rico's right to self-determination. But Puerto Rico can only change its status through an act of Congress, and Congress will not act until a supermajority of Puerto Ricans reaches a consensus.
More imperative to the well-being of Puerto Ricans is the territory's economy, which is heading for a nosedive. Puerto Rico is likely to default this year. Its cash reserves are dangerously low and could be depleted by the end of September if the government is unable to sell new debt or take emergency actions to preserve cash. The Obama administration will not bail out Puerto Rico and Congress is being aggressively lobbied by creditors with competing interests.
    Gretchen Sierra-Zorita
    Puerto Rico's debt stands at $72 billion. There is also a $34 billion shortfall on payments to public pensions. The governor's budget proposes to cut more than $600 million and includes closing 95 schools and 20 public agencies. The legislature approved increases to sales and service taxes. Unfortunately, it is all too little and too late.
    Austerity measures might give Puerto Rico access to financial markets but they will not liquidate the debt nor stimulate a stagnant economy. Protests by anxious and frustrated citizens have become commonplace.
    Puerto Rico's economic crisis began in 2006 with the termination of the federal corporate tax exemptions that sustained the island since the 1950s. The situation was aggravated by deficit spending and the 2008 recession.
    Buried in debt and without full U.S. federal support, it is difficult for Puerto Rico to right its course on its own. Allowing the Puerto Rican economy to implode will be costly to creditors, businesses and ultimately the U.S. government.
    The United States has a moral obligation and economic incentive to intervene. Moreover, aspiring presidential candidates should be motivated to act. Why? Because the Puerto Rican voters in Florida are crucial to the 2016 election.
    Florida is essential to any presidential win. In 2012, Puerto Ricans emerged as the new swing voters in Florida. Obama won the state by less than 1% and attracted 86% of the Puerto Rican vote.
    Puerto Ricans are not affiliated to one political party. They voted for Republican Jeb Bush as governor and for Democratic Barack Obama as president. In central Florida, they have elected three Democratic and three Republican state legislators of Puerto Rican descent.
    Florida has become the primary destination for Puerto Ricans leaving the embattled island. Close to 900,000 live in the state and their numbers are growing. They are invested in Puerto Rico's future because most of them were born on the island. As independent voters in a state with a history of tight elections, they are in a prime position to demand greater federal involvement in Puerto Rico's economic recovery.
    Those candidates who wish to win over Florida's Puerto Rican voters would do well to specify what actions they are willing to take to help the distressed territory. A list of deliverables could include the following:
    -- Endorse pending legislation to allow Puerto Rico's municipalities and government-owned corporations to restructure their debts as allowed in all 50 states under Chapter 9 federal bankruptcy law.
    -- Address inequities in the application of Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act to Puerto Rico. Of immediate concern is next year's 11% cut to Puerto Rico's Medicare Advantage premiums, compared to the approximately 3% increase in all 50 states. Puerto Ricans pay the full federal payroll tax that finances Medicare.
    -- Launch a U.S.-Puerto Rico partnership to help eliminate the culture of dependency on the U.S. government by increasing employment, spurring private sector growth, improving education, upgrading infrastructure, and fixing government finances. The President's Task Force on Puerto Rico has done preliminary work in this area.
    -- Hire Puerto Ricans to work in key positions in the campaign and ensure that the interests of Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories are represented in the candidate's agenda.
    These recommendations are just a start. They offer a new way of thinking for candidates who want to take Puerto Ricans and their votes seriously.
    If Puerto Ricans are expected to turn out for a candidate the way they did for Obama in Florida in 2012 they should be able to expect something in return. Flying to Puerto Rico to talk about the island's status, dance a little salsa, and try a fritter or two will no longer be sufficient.