TOPICS > Politics

Puerto Rico Gov. Fortuno on Obama Visit, Ongoing Statehood Debate

June 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
In the wake of President Obama's brief visit to Puerto Rico Tuesday, Ray Suarez discusses the president's visit, the ongoing debate over statehood plus the state of the island's economy with Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno.
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on the president’s visit, we are joined by Luis Fortuno, the governor of Puerto Rico.

Governor, welcome.

What did you and the president have to talk about?

GOV. LUIS FORTUNO, R-Puerto Rico: Well, certainly job creation. That’s item number one, lowering the cost of energy here.

We are 70 percent dependent on foreign oil. And we want to move away from that towards using natural gas and renewable energy — public safety issues, because after the clamping-down on the southwestern border, some of that illegal drug trafficking has moved and shifted towards the Caribbean. And, certainly, we must work together, the federal government and state government, to address that as well.

And that’s in addition to the status question, of course.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, as you mention the status question, it’s one of the dominant features of island politics, and has been for a long time. What did the president have to say to you on that subject?

GOV. LUIS FORTUNO: Well, I am trying to forge a consensus among the different political parties, so that we can consult the voters on this before December 2012, and with a mandate that I hopefully will get one way or the other, then go back to Washington and demand that Congress and the White House address this according to that mandate.

But, certainly, we first need to reach some sort of consensus on the process, take it to the voters, and have the voters decide.

RAY SUAREZ: The president mentioned he would stand with Puerto Rican voters, whatever they chose on status. But, of course, that’s only half the equation.

Do you have any assurances from either party in Congress that they would welcome a Puerto Rican statehood bid if it came?

GOV. LUIS FORTUNO: Well, I certainly — since there is no request for either statehood or staying as we are or becoming an independent republic at this moment, it will be very difficult to understand where will each member of Congress and the Senate be.

But, certainly, we are American citizens. We have been American citizens since 1917, and fought in every single war since then in greater numbers than most states. And I believe we deserve a chance to decide this.

RAY SUAREZ: You have been recently in conflict with the public employees unions. You have trimmed the public payroll, moved Puerto Rico away from being a high-tax, high-public-employment kind of place.

Does the debate inside Puerto Rico mirror that that is happening in various American states right now?

GOV. LUIS FORTUNO: Well, certainly, it does, in the sense that, when I came in just two years ago, I was facing the worst state budget deficit in the country. It was 44 percent of revenues.

We have been able, in two years, to close that gap significantly, actually to less than 11 percent. Actually, just two years ago, our budget deficit, proportionally speaking, made us the last — dead last amongst all states and territories.

Today, we’re 20th. That means there are 31 states that are worse off. And our credit rating has improved. That means also that we have been able to lower taxes for individuals and corporations as well. And that is — actually, we’re starting to reap the benefits of that. Just two years ago, the unemployment was above 17 percent. Today, it’s around 16 percent. And, actually, in the month of May, I believe we will be below 16 percent.

RAY SUAREZ: Sixteen percent, though, would put you the highest among all the American states. Has it led to social problems? Has it led to real suffering in Puerto Rico, to have an unemployment rate that high?

GOV. LUIS FORTUNO: Well, actually, suffering that actually we were going through, in the sense that the government didn’t have enough money to meet its first payroll when I was sworn in.

We have to take a loan to meet that payroll. Now, we didn’t have enough money to pay those actually that we had procured services and goods from. That we owed rent, power and water for nine months, that was real suffering. And, actually, after actually making those decisions that actually have saved our credit, we are now able to address major issues not just by lowering taxes on everyone, especially middle — the middle class, but on top of that, we are now being able to address needs in our public schools, our roads and other infrastructure needs.

RAY SUAREZ: As was mentioned earlier, Puerto Ricans can’t vote in national federal elections in the United States, but they do vote in primaries.

Do you think the island, with the presidential visit, with the issues that you’re mentioning, will get more attention in the 2012 cycle? Is that part of what you’re aiming for here?

GOV. LUIS FORTUNO: I have no doubts that that will happen. And, actually, the fact that even though we have been part of this great nation since 1898 and citizens since 1917, it has been 50 years since the last sitting president paid an official visit to Puerto Rico.

So, hopefully, after today’s visit, regardless of whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, or none of the above, it will allow us to actually showcase us and actually allow us to bring into the public discourse issues pertaining to the American citizens residing in the territory of Puerto Rico.

RAY SUAREZ: People who write and comment on immigration debates in the United States often set Puerto Ricans aside, both on the mainland and the island, and say it’s not really an issue for them.

But when the United States does comprehensive immigration reform, if it does, Puerto Rico is implicated in the immigration debate, isn’t it?

GOV. LUIS FORTUNO: Well, it is true that we are not directly implicated by it, because we are American citizens by birth.

Having said that, we all have our own opinions on that. And I’m sure that the fact that there’s intermarriage with Cubans, Colombians and others, not just here…

RAY SUAREZ: We seem to have lost the governor, unfortunately, from San Juan.

Sorry for that technical problem.