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Progressives urge 2020 contenders to address Puerto Rico's most pressing issues

Puerto Rico: The exodus after Hurricane Maria

A coalition of more than 30 Latino and Puerto Rican advocacy groups are urging 2020 presidential contenders to actively address the island's most pressing issues — including its ballooning debt, decades-long financial instability, damage from devastating storms and questions surrounding its territorial status — on the campaign trail and propose policies to remedy them. 

In an open letter addressed to all candidates who have launched White House bids, the "Power 4 Puerto Rico" group, an alliance of local and national organizations led by the progressive advocacy group Latino Victory Project, called on presidential hopefuls to have "comprehensive" platforms for the approximately 3.2 million U.S. citizens in the Caribbean island, as well as the large Puerto Rican diaspora in the mainland.  

"There are many structural challenges that Puerto Rico faces that require presidential leadership to make sure we not only help Puerto Rico rebuild, but also have the power to (equip) the Puerto Rican people with the necessary tools to be the drivers of their own destiny," renowned chef José Andrés said in a call with reporters Wednesday.

Echoing comments Gov. Ricardo Rosselló made to CBS News, the group said substantive policy proposals to alleviate the island's economic woes and dismantle its "colonial" status should be prioritized on campaign agendas. 

In its letter, the coalition asked candidates to support a "Marshall Plan-type" program to bolster the island's recovery efforts in the aftermath of hurricanes María and Irma, as well as legislation that would allow Puerto Ricans living on the island to participate in federal initiatives like Child Tax Credit (CTC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The nutritional program in Puerto Rico, known as NAP, can't expand to meet increased demand like SNAP because it is funded through an annual federal block grant. 

The groups also urged presidential contenders to back a waiver that exempts Puerto Rico from the Jones Act, a centuries-old law that requires goods shipped within the U.S. to be transported on ships operated and built by Americans. Critics of the law say the shipping restrictions hurt Puerto Rico's ability to receive relief aid during a disaster because the island is barred from using cheaper foreign ships.

Additionally, the coalition added in its letter, the presidential campaigns should be in favor of "undoing" the fiscal oversight board, established in 2016 by Congress to deal with the growing debt crisis, and its austerity measures. 

The letter asks White House hopefuls to vouch their support for a legally-binding referendum that triggers a change in the island's political status if Puerto Ricans vote in favor of doing so once again. In the past seven years, Puerto Rico has held two referendums on the status of the island. In both cases, voters opted for statehood, but the results were symbolic because any change in territorial status requires congressional approval. 

"Instead of imposing an option on Puerto Ricans, we feel that if Puerto Ricans come together and at least agree on which kind of process we can use to decolonize Puerto Rico, then the U.S. government should abide by that decision," Federico de Jesús, a "Power 4 Puerto Rico" senior adviser, told CBS News. 

Two Democrats seeking the nomination, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary Julián Castro, have already visited the island shortly after launching their campaigns.