Island Crisis Makes South Florida Puerto Ricans A Fast Growing 'Watchdog'

Jul 18, 2016

Puerto Rico’s economic crisis has gotten deeper this summer. This month the U.S. commonwealth defaulted on $1 billion of debt – and the U.S. Congress approved a federal oversight board to rescue the island.

Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland want a say in how that happens. So they recently created a more unified front called the National Puerto Rican Agenda (NPRA). The group includes a South Florida chapter – which reflects the surprising growth of Florida’s Puerto Rican population down here, not just in Central Florida.

Puerto Rico native and Miami public relations consultant Natascha Otero-Santiago chairs the NPRA in South Florida. She sat down with WLRN’s Tim Padgett to discuss Puerto Rico’s emergency – and how Puerto Ricans escaping it are changing our demographic landscape.

Excerpts:

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You still have family and friends in Puerto Rico. What are they telling you about how hard it is to live on the island now?

It is becoming much harder, especially in the San Juan area, the main city. Public schools are closing, hospitals are closing or have doctors leaving – one doctor a day leaving Puerto Rico. And the government doesn’t have money to fix streets, to fix the water, the electrical power of Puerto Rico. My mother or my family there have days without electricity for four, five, six hours.

Now everybody there is very concerned about the Zika virus. And what happened here in Florida [eight] years ago, the foreclosure problem, is actually happening in Puerto Rico for the last two years. So yes, I have many friends who are moving with their families to Florida.

Economists say the solution to Puerto Rico’s troubles is for the U.S. to give the commonwealth access to bankruptcy protection. But that means getting Puerto Rico more clout in Congress, even though the island isn’t really represented there. Was building that clout a big reason the National Puerto Rican Agenda was founded last year?

The New York Puerto Rican community today is 30 percent island-born. In South Florida it's almost 70 percent island-born. When you have that connection, you have to be more of a watchdog. -Natascha Otero-Santiago

Yes. Actually, what we realized is that there were a lot of organizations that had their roots in Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans. We saw the need to bring together all these organizations, like an alliance, and be a voice. So now we’re having our constituent public assembly in Camden, New Jersey, on the 24th of July, for issues that affect Puerto Rico at this moment.

There is the famous oversight board, chosen by Congress, that is actually going to rule over Puerto Rico’s economy. It is made up of seven people – but only one person has to have residency in Puerto Rico. So what we’re trying to do is be a watchdog of this oversight board.

Florida now has more than a million Puerto Rican residents.

Exactly. With that amount living in Florida, you would think we would have more representation. We still don’t have a federal House representative from Florida that is Puerto Rican.

We do have a Puerto Rican Democrat, Darren Soto, running for the [U.S.] House seat [in Central Florida]that Alan Grayson is leaving. And here in South Florida we do have one Puerto Rican running, for [state House] District 118: Democrat Robert Asencio. But the perception that Puerto Ricans are all Democrats is not completely true.

COLONIAL RELATIONSHIP

Are Puerto Rican numbers down here in South Florida growing that fast?

They are. Everybody always says 750,000 Puerto Ricans live in Tampa, I-4, Orlando. But South Florida is growing much quicker. There are 300,000 or more here – 100,000 Puerto Ricans in Miami-Dade and 100,000 and 100,000 each in Broward and Palm Beach.

What to your mind are the differences between the older, more established Puerto Rican communities like New York and the younger communities like those here in Florida?

Michelle Datiz waves a Puerto Rican flag at Miami's Calle Ocho festival last year.
Credit Alexia Fodere / El Nuevo Herald

They are different. I always say they all keep Puerto Rico very close to their hearts. But the ones in New York are 30 percent island-born. In South Florida, and Florida, that number rises to almost 70 percent island-born. I have lived in Miami for 22 years. But my family, everybody, are still in Puerto Rico. So there is that connection to the island. When you have that, you have to be more of a watchdog.

Puerto Rico’s critics blame the commonwealth’s reckless spending for its $72 billion debt. So what changes is the NPRA trying to influence there on the island?

I’ll be the first to say a big cause for the $72 billion is the spending of all the governments there – the excessive size of the government – and the general lack of fiscal oversight.

But it’s also [Puerto Rico’s] colonial relationship with the United States. Like the Jones Act, which requires that everything has to come into Puerto Rico through the U.S. Merchant Marine. To fix the economic problem we also have to fix the colonization problem. But I worry that the time has passed for Puerto Rico to become a [U.S.] state.