Federal Response To Puerto Rico Reignites Statehood Push
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Now to Puerto Rico and how the federal government's flawed response to Hurricane Maria has rekindled the long-running debate around statehood for the U.S. territory. NPR and the PBS show "Frontline" spent months looking at that response. Here's NPR's Laura Sullivan putting a question to FEMA official Michael Byrne in one of her stories that aired this past week.
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LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: You've got hundreds of thousands of tarps that never arrived. You've got a power restoration company that has no experience restoring power. You've got materials stuck on docks in Florida and Puerto Rico. How is any of this OK?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: A very good question. And for more, I'm joined by our two correspondents - NPR's Adrian Florido, who is in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Good morning to you.
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Laura Sullivan, who is in the studio here in D.C. Good morning.
SULLIVAN: Good morning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was a blockbuster report, I have to say. So, I'm going to start with you, Laura. Can you explain why the statehood debate has become now part of the discussion?
SULLIVAN: You know, the hurricane really shoved this issue to the forefront in a way that it has never been before. Not only did Texas and Florida have an easier time advocating for themselves because they have senators and representatives fighting for them, you know, on the Hill and with the administration...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: After their hurricanes.
SULLIVAN: Exactly, after their hurricanes in Florida and Texas. But also that even the federal response in those states was far more focused and more prepared than it was in Puerto Rico.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's Congress ultimately that can decide if Puerto Rico becomes a state. And a recent interview you did has been making big waves on the island, and it's from a congressman in Utah, which is a little bit counterintuitive. Please explain.
SULLIVAN: So I interviewed Congressman Rob Bishop. He's a Republican from Utah. And it's weird because Puerto Rico is a territory. It falls under Congress to oversee it. And Congressman Bishop is the chairman of the committee that oversees Puerto Rico. So that means that a representative from Utah has arguably more power over Puerto Rico's future than anyone. And he shocked people when he broke with some of his party's ranks and told me this.
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ROBERT BISHOP: They should be on a track to statehood. They are Americans. They have a history of patriotism. They are a clear part of the country. And people have to realize how much Puerto Rico has been a part of the United States.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Adrian, this, I think, is a big deal - right? Congressman Bishop here is telling Laura he's supporting Puerto Rican statehood without the preconditions you normally hear. Has he kept to that line, though? He's been on the island this past week.
FLORIDO: Right. So he told Laura that he supported statehood straight up. And then on Friday, he was here in Puerto Rico, and he kind of qualified his position. He said that Puerto Rico would first have to improve its economy and its government. These are the sorts of preconditions, like you were suggesting, that a lot of politicians often place on this - on their support for a statehood. Among statehood proponents here on the island, that usually does not go over well. And it did not go over well with the governor, Ricardo Rossello, who criticized Bishop's new position. And then on Saturday, yesterday, Bishop changed his stance again, saying that there should not be any preconditions for statehood.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: People in the mainland are certainly more focused on Puerto Rico after seeing the devastation and the fallout from the slow response from the federal government. But what are the people in Puerto Rico saying about this issue now? Has it changed?
FLORIDO: I mean, it depends on who you talk to. A proponent of statehood see, you know, the fact that Puerto Rico got so much attention after Hurricane Maria as one of their best opportunities to advance their cause because a lot of Americans on the mainland are paying attention. On the other hand, you've got people who say, you know, that the federal government's response is proof that Puerto Rico needs more autonomy from the federal government so that it can take care of itself. And at the end of the day, I mean, because Puerto Rican politics is so fundamentally built around this question of statehood, there are a lot of Puerto Ricans who just don't think that politicians really have any interest in resolving it because the debate around it is sort of their reason for being.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. So that's the view from Puerto Rico. But, Laura, is there more momentum around this issue on Capitol Hill, which ultimately has the power now that it's been revealed how flawed the government's response was to the storm?
SULLIVAN: Yeah. I mean, having a Republican chairman say that Puerto Rico should be a state is huge because what people on the Hill is saying is actually holding this idea back is not the idea that Puerto Rico has to get its fiscal situation in order, that that's sort of a red herring, but the feeling that Puerto Rico would vote as a Democratic bloc. Republicans don't want to add two Democratic senators and a handful of representatives. But a lot of people in Puerto Rican politics say that many people in Puerto Rico actually are conservative, and it wouldn't be such a sure thing that Puerto Rico would vote that way but that they've been just pushed into the Democratic block by things like frustration with this administration's response to the storm.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Laura Sullivan in D.C, thank you very much.
SULLIVAN: Thanks so much.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Adrian Florido in Puerto Rico, thank you very much.
FLORIDO: Thanks, both of you.
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