Pedro Pierluisi, gubernatorial candidate with the New Progressive Party (PNP), arrives at Vivo Beach Club to celebrate a slim lead of the pro-statehood party in the Puerto Rican general elections.
( AP Photo/Carlos Giusti
Host: Puerto Rico has a new governor, Pedro Pierluisi of the pro-statehood party has been sworn into office and faces a series of crises on the island including COVID-19 infections, infrastructure woes, and a hollowed-out economy. So far, Pierluisi has pledged to fight corruption and poverty on the island and to make Puerto Rico a state. Here with me now to talk about all this is Dánica Coto, correspondent for The AP covering the Caribbean. Dánica, Welcome back to the show.
Dánica: Hi, thank you for having me.
Host: How widespread is support on the island for Pierluisi? We should remind folks that he was a governor for what, two minutes during the removal of the previous governor?
Dánica: Exactly. I believe it was two days. It was very, very brief. Again, he had actually lost against former governor Ricardo Rosselló during the primaries in 2016. He's had several runs at this. When people talk about support for Pierluisi, out of 1.2 million votes cast, he obtained some 400,000 votes. He's the first governor to obtain the lowest number of votes in the island's history, receiving about 33% compared with the 32%, for Carlos Delgado, of the Popular Democratic Party. That also marked the first time that either of the islands, longtime dominant parties failed to reach 40% of the votes. You had some new parties throwing in their hat these elections. There's also new faces in Puerto Rico's Senate and House of Representatives. He does not have as much support as previous governors have had, but he is known for his conciliatory nature. There's still a lot of support for Puerto Rico becoming a state, so that's one of his priorities as well.
Host: Let's talk a little bit about the financial crisis that the island continues to find itself in. Earlier this month, the Trump administration said it would send nearly $4 billion that's billion with the B dollars to Puerto Rico to help rebuild infrastructure. The debt that Puerto Rico owes has to begin being paid in February. Where does Pierluisi stand on the fiscal status of the island right now?
Dánica: Well, he faces a very dire situation. Puerto Rico has been in a deep economic crisis for more than a decade. The pandemic, of course, has only deepened the problem. Leaders of business associations have warned that if the nearly year-long, stringent measures to fight COVID-19 are not relaxed sometime soon, that up to 25% of small and medium-sized businesses could permanently close. Like you mentioned, Puerto Rico also will have to start paying a portion of its debt to creditors in upcoming months and it's also unclear how that might impact services, including health, education, and public safety. In addition to all of this, the island, as you know, is still struggling to recover from hurricanes, Irma and Maria in 2017, as well as a string of earthquakes that hit more than a year ago.
Host: Let's talk a little bit about the-- You said that Puerto Rico is going to have to start paying back its creditors. What relationship does Pedro Pierluisi have with the PROMESA fiscal oversight board that's been making a lot of these big decisions for the island's economy so far?
Dánica: Well, while he was resident commissioner, the position where he represented Puerto Rico in Congress, Pierluisi said he was in favor of the law that Congress created in 2016 that created the fiscal oversight board that oversees Puerto Rico's finances, and the ongoing restructuring of some of its more than $70 billion public debt load. Pierluisi also used to work for the law firm that provided external legal advice to the board. At the time, just a bit of trivia, the board's former chairman Jose Carrión, was Pierluisi's brother-in-law. Pierluisi said he has distanced himself from the board, that he will fight to pay only a portion of the debt owed, which of course, remains to be seen whether that will really happen. He also wants the board to have a supervisory role and not implement its own version of the government's budget as it has in recent years.
Host: How much power does he have to actually do a lot of the things that he's talking about doing?
Dánica: That's a great question. It's the same thing we have heard from previous governors and, in the end, the board has implemented its own version of the fiscal plan, of the budget, and all these to be able to pay off a debt that was accumulated for decades by previous administrations.
Host: Coronavirus, is also, and the COVID-19 is also affecting Puerto Ricans, particularly on the island. What is the vaccine distribution look like so far, Dánica, and what challenges does Pierluisi face when he takes office to mitigate some of that?
Dánica: It's been pretty streamlined so far. The island has about 3.2 million people and more than 100,000 people have been vaccinated so far, the majority of the medical workers. Officials and medical workers are pretty pleased with so far how it's going. Officials have started vaccinating those who live and work in nursing homes, as well as the elderly. Although those plans have hit some snags in recent days, the health department published a list of phone numbers where elderly people can call to make an appointment, but some of these numbers were erroneous. They're trying to release a corrected version, and they expect this second phase to take anywhere from two to three months.
Host: Dánica, I want to get one more question before we end the segment, though, based on something else entirely, because Pierluisi is saying he wants to make Puerto Rico a state. Does he have the support on the island to do that?
Dánica: If you look at the referendum that the island held back in November elections--
Host: Which was also contested, right? People had mixed feelings about how it was done, wasn't it?
Dánica: Correct. It was a six-part referendum. That gives you a sense of how long Puerto Rico has been trying to push these referendums through, and obviously, they're non-binding, so any changes will need approval from US Congress. The most recent referendum about 42% of voters responded, yes. When asked if the island should be admitted immediately into the Union as a state, it's not a huge majority, it's always been divided. Then it remains to be seen whether President-elect Joe Biden, he has pledged to work with people who support all kinds of political status for Puerto Rico. It remains to be seen, what will actually happen, if any change finally will be implemented.
Host: We can only hope for the best. The island has definitely taken its share of challenges over the past decade. Dánica Coto is a correspondent for The Associated Press covering the Caribbean. Dánica, thanks so much.
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