President Trump astonished people across the country last week when he denied 3,000 Puerto Ricans died as a result of Hurricane Maria. He insisted (falsely) that Democrats inflated the death toll to make him “look bad.”
For Ernesto Morales, Trump’s tweets exacerbated his awful memories of the storm, which demolished Puerto Rico a year ago this Thursday.
“It was like one of these Mad Max movies,” says Morales, a film producer who was also president of the board of his condominium building in Carolina, just outside San Juan. After the hurricane, he had to help 100 families get through the nightmarish days and nights of no electricity, water or sanitation.
“People had to guard diesel fuel with weapons,” Morales recalls. “Garbage was overflowing and it became a health problem – flies and gnats all over the place.”
Then a politically connected friend dropped by and told him about how slowly the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, was apparently moving to help the Caribbean island.
“He starts telling me the U.S. Army is sailing around the island waiting for FEMA instructions,” says Morales. “And there’s nobody to move food ‘cause there’s no truck drivers and no diesel to move it.”
Worse was the specter of violent looters coming into his community with no security to stop them.
“I’m standing there in total darkness,” Morales remembers, “and he said, ‘My suggestion: get your family outta here.’”
He meant out of Puerto Rico – which was already suffering an epic economic collapse before the hurricane hit. Two weeks later, Morales moved with his wife, brother and son to Miami. They were part of a post-Maria migration to Florida that an estimated 150,000 other Puerto Ricans have made.
The family settled in Hialeah and Morales, with the federal government’s dysfunctional hurricane response fresh in his mind, got politically active. Voter registration groups like Boricua Vota hired him to make videos aimed at Puerto Ricans in Florida.
“It is urgent,” says Morales. “The entity that has absolute power over Puerto Rico is called the U.S. Congress. So I said, ‘Well, if the U.S. Congress is in charge of Puerto Rico, then maybe Puerto Ricans should be in charge of the U.S. Congress.'”
That’s a big rallying cry in Florida leading up to the November mid-term election.
Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. But those living on the island cannot vote in U.S. elections. They can if they reside on the U.S. mainland. It’s not known how many Puerto Ricans are registered to vote in Florida. But more than a million Puerto Ricans live here now. Most are in Central Florida; about a third are in South Florida.
And they are asserting themselves politically. In July, for example – after Florida’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis ridiculed Puerto Rican congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
In video taken at a campaign stop, DeSantis says: “You look at this girl, Ocasia-Cortez or whatever she is – I mean, she’s in a totally different universe.”
Ocasio-Cortez is a New York Democrat. But DeSantis’ remarks prompted a video from Puerto Rican women in Florida – which got more than a quarter million views in 48 hours:
“Representative DeSantis,” the video says, “out of 1.1 million Puerto Ricans in Florida…550,000 are women. And we vote.”
Video by Mario Catalino
So the widely held assumption is that Puerto Ricans will be a key swing vote here in November – especially now after Trump’s death toll tweets.
But how accurate is that notion?
“We’re placing an enormous amount of expectation on them,” says Eduardo Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University who recently conducted a survey of Florida Puerto Ricans for Nuestro Futuro, or Our Future, a partnership of Puerto Rican advocacy groups.
It suggests not as many newly arrived Puerto Ricans are registering to vote as anticipated. And while most of all Florida Puerto Ricans say they’ve signed up to vote, only half of them said they intend to vote in November.
“In Puerto Rico, the voter participation rate is high,” Gamarra says. “But when Puerto Ricans come here, their political behavior changes.”
A big reason: even though they’re U.S. citizens, many are still struggling to adapt to a new world.
“There is no reason to think that because Puerto Ricans got here because of a disaster they’re really caring about what’s happening in politics in Florida or any other place,” says Natascha Otero-Santiago, South Florida chair of the nonprofit National Puerto Rican Agenda. She says newly arrived Puerto Ricans she helps register often have other priorities like learning English or “jobs and housing, etcetera.”
THROWING PAPER TOWELS
But what about all that anger Puerto Ricans say they feel for Trump – which was supposed to galvanize their turnout? In the Florida Puerto Rican survey, three-quarters did say they hold a bad opinion of Trump. And not surprisingly, more than half say they’ll vote Democrat; only 7 percent said Republican.
One of the Democrats is Maruxa Cardenas, who was a parole officer in Puerto Rico. She moved to Miami after the hurricane wrecked her mother’s house in San Juan.
“When I saw Donald Trump just throwing paper towels at people and just making a big joke out of it” during his visit to Puerto Rico shortly after the hurricane, Cardenas says, “I was like, I’m getting involved no matter what. So I just started moving and started applying to political campaigns.”
Once in Miami, Cardenas began working for Democratic candidates like congressional contender David Richardson. He lost his primary bid last month, but he spoke out for better treatment of Puerto Rico.
“That was like the gratifying feeling that you got someone to listen to you and your point is getting across,” says Cardenas. “It gave me the feeling that I could do more for Puerto Rico here in Florida than being home there.”
Cardenas is now with the re-election campaign of Democratic state Representative Robert Asencio. He’s Puerto Rican and represents District 118 in west Miami-Dade, where the Puerto Rican population is growing.
“The Puerto Rican vote cannot be ignored,” says Asencio. “And the President has really defined the course of this electoral cycle, where Puerto Ricans are not going to vote with anyone that’s aligned with the President.”
Still, the Florida Puerto Rican voter survey suggests many are registered as independents. So Asencio’s opponent, Anthony Rodriguez, thinks the Trump effect on GOP candidates like him is exaggerated.
“At the end of the day I am my own person,” says Rodriguez. “I am not Trump, and I am going to represent my neighbors. So to relate me to the Trump effect is a faulty assumption.”
That does seem to hold true in Florida’s biggest national election in November: The U.S. Senate race between Republican Governor Rick Scott and the incumbent Democrat, Bill Nelson.
Even Democrats concede Scott has done a shrewd job separating himself from Trump on Puerto Rico. He made sure full-service welcome centers were set up for Puerto Ricans at Florida airports. And last week he tweeted he disagreed with Trump about the hurricane death toll being inflated.
Scott’s won the endorsement of Puerto Rico’s representative to the U.S. Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón, who’s appeared in one of Scott’s Senate campaign ads.
Senator Nelson has reached out to Puerto Ricans, too, and he’s made numerous fact-finding visits to Puerto Rico. But as he told WFTV in Orlando recently about working the Puerto Rican vote, “at the end of the day you gotta be down in the trenches,” and many Puerto Rican activists say he and the Democratic Party have not done enough of that yet.
“We’re worried,” says Mario Catalino, who produced the Puerto Rican women’s video and is active with Boricua Vota as well as the Puerto Rican Leadership Council.
“Ya know, Mr. Nelson’s campaign is not taking seriously enough the Puerto Rican population. I think the Democratic Party is completely missing the boat when it comes to getting its message to them.”
This Saturday, to observe the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rican groups are planning a caravan-style protest near Trump’s Palm Beach resort, Mar-a-Lago. Otero-Santiago of the National Puerto Rican Agenda says Florida politicos of any stripe should get out among them.
She puts it another way, referring to Puerto Rico’s popular fried plantain dish: "You have to get out there and eat the mofongo.”