Editor’s Note: Pedro Reina-Pérez is a professor at the University of Puerto Rico and a visiting scholar at Harvard University. Follow him on Twitter: @pedroreinaperez. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
While rallying in Florida last month, President Donald Trump made what some may consider an unwonted call to Puerto Ricans. “You better vote for me, Puerto Rico,” he vaunted, after falsely claiming he’s “the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico.” Although Puerto Ricans on the island, a US territory since 1898, cannot vote, there are over 850,000 of them who can in the Sunshine State. Boricuas hold 27% of the state’s share of the Latino electorate in the 2020 election – only second to Cubans who represent 29%. And the Trump campaign is very aware.
In early October, the President got Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced’s endorsement. Vázquez Garced, who was sworn in after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló was ousted in the summer of 2019, has little to no political pull among Puerto Ricans. She lost her primary bid for a full term in August by a landslide and faced a local special prosecutor investigation for alleged mishandling of supplies for victims of the January earthquakes.
The Governor was set to appear with Trump in the Sanford airport, 20 miles north of Orlando, right at the heart of the state’s Puerto Rican community, the week he tested positive for coronavirus. The diagnosis upended what should have been an important appearance that the Trump campaign hoped would have cemented the Boricua support for the President.
Stretching cross-state from Orlando to Tampa, in what is commonly referred to as the “I-4 Corridor”, this region is home to nearly 1.2 million Puerto Ricans that have resettled in the state mainly over the last 20 years. They now wield considerable power to influence the final result of the general election, and the GOP knows it. For Trump, winning Florida is crucial for a victory and for that he likely needs to have Puerto Ricans on his side. This outcome, however, is not as simple as it seems, particularly after the President’s contentious and problematic history with the island, its political leaders – and especially those that favor its full integration as a state.
Trump’s rally to court the Puerto Rican vote would have coincided with the third anniversary of his infamous visit to the island in 2017, in which he was filmed throwing paper towels to survivors, almost two weeks after the Category 4 Hurricane Maria obliterated the territory. The moment remains a sad reminder of his lack of empathy and understanding for people he now may need to overcome considerable electoral obstacles to win a second term at the White House.
For the past three years, his administration has been criticized for its faulty and slow response to the devastation caused by Maria, yet his tweets bucked any criticism: “Puerto Rico got far more money than Texas & Florida combined, yet their government can’t do anything right, the place is a mess — nothing works,” he tweeted in 2019.
But a report by the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security took issue with him by stating that “FEMA cannot ensure it provided commodities to Puerto Ricodisaster survivors as needed to sustain life and alleviate suffering as part of its response and recovery mission.” According to the report, released in late September, only 37% of the water and 45% of the meals reached the distribution centers because the agency mismanaged the process, thus confirming what Puerto Ricans long denounced. The entire relief operation, with thousands of lives at stake, was a complete disaster.
By claiming to be the “best thing to ever happen to Puerto Rico,” Trump willfully ignores the well documented history of disdain he’s shown for the island and its people. He boasted back in 2019: “Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth. Their political system is broken and their politicians are either Incompetent or Corrupt” The President is now in a tight spot with this segment of the electorate and needs to come up with new tricks to salvage any chance of being reelected.
“As Central Florida goes, so goes the road to the White House,” wrote former Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in an op-ed published in The Orlando Sentinel back in August. “Central Florida has been decisive for every Republican presidential candidate since 1992. In every election where the Republican presidential candidate wins 50% or more of a dozen key Central Florida counties, he wins the state and the presidency.” These words carried a dire warning for the Trump campaign.
A distinguished member of the Cuban community in Florida, Ros-Lehtinen knows a thing or two about politics in the state. Citing a recent study by the James Madison Institute, which revealed that openness to Puerto Rican statehood is the vote-moving issue for central Floridians of Puerto Rican descent, she points to the obvious.
“My party, the Republican Party, cannot win Florida without winning Central Florida. And we can no longer win Central Florida without carrying a high enough percentage of this Puerto Rican ‘diaspora’ vote,” she wrote in the op-ed. “None of this means a candidate must endorse Puerto Rican statehood in order to win Central Florida. It does, however, absolutely require that a candidate (especially a Republican one) be open and respectful toward this aspiration,” she argued.
Achieving this with such an unpredictable and racist candidate will be a formidable challenge for the GOP.
Talking to Fox News last month, the President resisted any endorsement of statehood for Puerto Rico, dismissing the controversial topic by saying that “a lot of Puerto Ricans don’t want statehood”.
Referring to rumors of a plan by Democrats to offer statehood to DC, as well to increase their number of seats in the Senate, he added “what’s the flag going to look like?” Given his track record of inconsistencies and his contempt for Puerto Ricans, Trump has no viable options to lure Puerto Rican voters in the I-4 Corridor to his side. They may very well hold the key to Trump’s fortunes.