The Wall Street Journal
President Trump’s decision to host Venezuelan interim President Juan Guaidó at the State of the Union address last week was a message to Cuba and Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro that the U.S. remains committed to the cause of freedom in the region. It was also a clever political move aimed at energizing Hispanic voters in South Florida, particularly those of Cuban and Venezuelan heritage.
Hispanics are a key demographic in the race to capture Florida’s 29 electoral votes in November. When the topic arises, Miami-area escapees from communist Cuba and its satellite regimes jump to mind. But to win the state, Republicans would be smart to focus also on the large Puerto Rican community in central Florida.
Puerto Ricans are American citizens but can’t vote in presidential elections unless they reside in one of the 50 states. According to a Pew Research Center report in 2018, “Puerto Ricans have been [Florida’s] fastest-growing Hispanic-origin group over the past decade.” In the same report Pew said Puerto Ricans are now about one-third of eligible Hispanic voters in Florida, similar to the size of the Cuban-American cohort.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the island diaspora in Florida is not preprogrammed to vote Democratic. This large slice of middle-class voters whose mother tongue is Spanish includes many skilled young people who can’t find jobs on the island. They treasure their homeland and most still have family there but for economic reasons they are in Florida.
Educated Puerto Ricans in Florida know that any chance of a return to their beloved homeland to pursue their careers requires busting up the island’s political racket. Mr. Trump is the ideal candidate for the job.
The president doesn’t have high approval ratings among Florida’s Puerto Ricans. But in the 2018 elections Republican candidates did better among Puerto Rican voters than pollsters had forecast. A similar surprise in November isn’t out of the question if the president can sell ideas of reform over the din of Democrats who want to preserve the status quo.
Most Puerto Rican newcomers have landed in the Orlando-Tampa Bay area. Vice President Mike Pence’s campaign rally in Kissimmee last month targeted these voters. Democrats threw down the gauntlet, welcoming Mr. Pence with a billboard headlined “Never Forget” in Spanish, shaming Mr. Trump for tossing rolls of paper towels to storm victims during a post-Maria visit to the island. Mr. Pence took their bait.
During a speech at an evangelical church he boasted about federal aid to the island. But Republicans can never compete with Democrats at offering largess. Team Trump would be better off confronting head-on the Democratic narrative that Puerto Rican poverty is a federal failure.
For decades Washington’s default strategy for the island has been to dump more money. One of the most egregious examples of federal irresponsibility in recent memory was the 2016 bankruptcy pushed by President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan in violation of existing federal law. Democrats wanted to protect the welfare state and public-sector unions and Republicans wanted to avoid charges of colonialism in an election year.
Permission to abrogate bond contracts came with a multitude of promises to impose change on the island’s dysfunctional public offices. Predictably that hasn’t happened. Some $50 billion is still in default and so is the electricity monopoly. For politicians it’s business as usual.
Puerto Rican politics are split between those who want statehood and those who want to preserve commonwealth status. But neither can fix Puerto Rico’s most pressing problem: a political culture that preys on its own people and scoffs at transparency and accountability.
A common complaint is that public contracts are awarded not on merit but on willingness to pay kickbacks. In business, one former investor told me, “there is a direct correlation between the potential for a new enterprise and a knock on your door asking for a piece of the action in exchange for ensuring ‘the success of your project.’”
President Trump has been demonized by the political class for calling out corruption. In the aftermath of recent earthquakes he has promised federal aid but conditioned it on detailed budgets, better record-keeping and no $15 minimum wage for federal projects. A White House spokesman told the Journal in January that the president “is working to ensure the people of Puerto Rico are getting the funds they need, while also holding the Puerto Rican government accountable to ensure the money is well-spent.”
Last week the administration named Coast Guard rear admiral Peter Brown to a new White House post to oversee disaster relief efforts. Corruption hawks are hoping he will have the power to monitor where the money goes.
Democrats’ efforts to caricature Mr. Trump as anti-Hispanic have had some success and the president has helped fuel the charge. But in real life his actions reflect greater care about the islanders than those of his rivals. That’s something that might interest Puerto Rican voters in Florida.
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