The following is a transcript of a wide-ranging interview with Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who told CBS News on Friday that Democrats taking on President Trump in 2020 need to make Puerto Rico a top issue in their campaigns.
CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Today, from your perspective, what are the most pressing issues for the island?
GOV. RICARDO ROSSELLÓ: I think, number one: the speed in which the recovery funding is falling to Puerto Rico, particularly on the FEMA front, is a pressing issue. That has provoked — that we still have some, you know, some emergency-type work that needs to be done that hasn't fully been resolved, such as blue tarps in different houses and so forth. I think that NAP, the NAP relief extension is a critical item that we have on the agenda, so that we can get our nutritional needs met. So, we're pushing the agenda in Congress, so that we can get a $600 million NAP relief fund approved. And then, on the longer, you know, on the longer side of that, to change Puerto Rico to SNAP, so that we can have better resources than we have.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: That's the ultimate goal?
ROSSELLÓ: That's the ultimate goal. That would be the ultimate goal regarding that. Medicaid, Medicaid fix for Puerto Rico. We had a temporary fix with the recovery bill, but that ends up expiring sometime in September. And what we're looking for is for a permanent fix. This will help us out, at least not only in health care but also regarding our long-term planning and visibility, and so forth. And then I would say lastly, is the pressing issue of Puerto Ricans' inequality — which needs to be solved. We're a colonial territory, as you know. And we want, with the visibility that Puerto Rico now has, with the truth of the matter that folks are now starting to be aware of the fact that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, we're part of the United States, and we need to end colonialism once and for all. And we're going to be pushing for that.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: And how do you end it governor? Because you had a referendum on this already and nothing has happened.
ROSSELLÓ: Well, right. So, we've had two referendums in the past seven years, both of them chose statehood. But unfortunately ...
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: They're non-binding ...
ROSSELLÓ: They're non-binding. And Congress needs to act in order for us to do this. Now, truth be told, because there was little, you know, I would say, little amplification on the issues of Puerto Rico prior to the storm, you know, those things sort of went under the radar for the broader audience. But now where Puerto Rico has been thrusted upon to the national relevancy stage, and there's a consciousness to it, I don't know how anybody that supports equality or equal treatment could be against or could not fight for, you know, the democratic will of the people of Puerto Rico to become a full state of the union.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: You have presidential candidates visiting Puerto Rico now after they announce. What does that mean for the island?
ROSSELLÓ: I think it showcases that Puerto Rico has risen from a seven-page issue, to a top-level issue in general discussion of policy and politics in the United States. I think it gives us an opportunity to address some of our lagging needs that were sort of — they always went under the radar because there was no amplification on the messaging. So, it is very important. I'm thankful for both candidates. It's not only that two candidates, presidential candidates went, it's that as soon as they announced, the first place that they went to was Puerto Rico. So, that showcases the importance of Puerto Rico. And I would not be surprised — and actually, I would be expecting that other candidates that have already declared and that will declare will visit Puerto Rico promptly.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: So, it would help the island not only economically, but to have political voice here in Washington?
ROSSELLÓ: Well, I think the two are linked, right? If you, take the example of FEMA. Because we don't have a voice, we are hard-pressed to move resources to Puerto Rico. So, that limits our capability of developing our society and our economy. So, I think it's both issues. But the root cause of the problem is just having U.S. citizens that are disenfranchised. I mean, it doesn't make sense that in the 21st century, you have 3.5 million U.S. citizens, 3.3 million U.S. citizens, that don't have the right to vote just because of where they live. Any of these citizens, should they move to the states, would be able to vote anyway. Any U.S. citizen that would move to Puerto Rico would lose those rights, which is bizarre.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Puerto Ricans are becoming an important voting bloc now in Florida.
ROSSELLÓ: That's right. In Florida, East Coast states, Texas. So, they're spreading out. We're almost at 5.4 million strong in the United States. And if you compare it to other important blocs, like our Cuban American brothers and sisters, they're only 2.7 million. So, if we get organized and have a clear platform, we will be a force to be reckoned with in national politics.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: You talked about FEMA. Right now, you're dealing with this backlog of bodies in the morgue. This is something that you've been dealing with, even, from what we've heard and reported, even before the hurricanes. There's been this backlog. We've heard from a lot of families. Obviously, this is very frustrating. You know, you lose your loved ones and you can't see them, after they pass way. This is very, very personal to them. And so, we know that you're requesting help from the federal government. What is the status of those requests?
ROSSELLÓ: It's just FEMA is so slow and at many points, it just doesn't move. Of course, we have the change in leadership now, and we hope that this will facilitate things. But, just to give you an example, the problems with the forensics bureau have been decades-long. It's been a lack of resources. We need human resources to — the only way that you can take care of the backlog is having human resources, and of course, the technical wherewithal to that. We haven't had the money to do it, to recruit. So, the short-term solution is getting technical assistance from the states. There's a path to doing that. The path is that FEMA does emit a mission assignment so that they can allow HHS to bring the DMORT units into Puerto Rico.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: But that's a temporary fix, right?
ROSSELLÓ: It is a temporary fix.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: So, how do you solve the problem in the long-term?
ROSSELLÓ: You need money. We need resources from the — which I'm willing to pay for, but the oversight board has controlled what resources go into the department.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Your spending.
ROSSELLÓ: Of spending for that particular thing, I mean. I would — here's the thing, I know that this is personal. This is hurtful, and it hurts me to see moms that are waiting for their kids' bodies. It hurts me to see family members in pain.But there are somethings that we need to do in order for this to happen. One, short-term, you know, short-term thinking, half a year, one year runway, we would get help from the federal government. That would be very quick.
As soon — just to give you context; as soon FEMA would authorize a mission assignment, in a week, in a week, those DMORT units would be in Puerto Rico, because HHS is already ready to do this. They just need the mission assignment. Still haven't given us the mission assignment, so we're stuck there. Secondly, we need to work so that fiscal oversight board does not control every pocket of the budget, but rather stays within what is their purview in statue, which is setting how much you can spend overall.That way I can decide to cut somewhere else in government and invest in areas that are critical, such as this. I would do it in heartbeat.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: So, governor, you're saying basically that your stuck between two rocks. You have that you can't get this slow request moving in FEMA and you also have the board blocking you from spending money to increase staffing.
ROSSELLÓ: To increase staffing, correct. And then, the third —
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: So, it's not like you're not doing it because you don't want to?
ROSSELLÓ: No, of course not. I want to do it. We've been voicing this out. And I would hope that you would help us get this message out. We've submitted petitions to the board, so that we can reassign funding. We've identified the funding to do. And the next step is recruiting.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: And what has been the response? Have you gotten a response from the board?
ROSSELLÓ: The board just recently accepted disbursement of $1.5 million for human resources.So, now we're going to have to recruit. But that, of course, takes a little bit of time in order to do so. Let me tell you what other things I've been doing in order to fix this problem. I had an MLU with the University of Puerto Rico, so that we can take residency doctors and they can do hours in the forensics bureau. That would allow to get about five to six percent of the total workload that's in there, if we do it on a continuous basis.
We had the association of the attorneys general and crime lab association come to Puerto Rico and help us out with some of the backlog, forensic items that we had and with some of the technical assistance for better technology to implement. I specified, we passed a law in Puerto Rico that gives a very competitive rate to medical doctors and specialists. I opened that for forensic pathologists, which are the types of doctors that we need. They would get a four percent tax rate. So, while we couldn't give them a raise because we're limited in resources, you would be getting a 25, 30 percent tax cut, which is money in your pocket. And that would be an incentive.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: I mean governor, we talked to someone who works at the morgue, who obviously did not want to disclose his identity, who says that on some rare occasions, there's one forensic scientist on the job in Puerto Rico, in an island of 3.2 million U.S. residents.
ROSSELLÓ: It is — most of the time, it's three.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: That's still not enough.
ROSSELLÓ: That's still not enough, exactly. We need to at least double our capacity, and even maybe 120, 125 percent. And that's what we're committed to doing. As soon as we get the resources, we can the contracting out, right? But we need permanent jobs. So right now, we have a $1.5 million that are going to be given for the science bureau, for the forensics bureau, but those are going to be used for contracts because there's no long-term commitment, except for that $1.5 million. We need a long-term solution that because it's been a chronic problem historically, of course exacerbated by the storm because we got backlogged and so forth.But it has been a problem for the past three or four decades in Puerto Rico and we're committed to fixing it. Now, there are certain pieces that we still need to happen. I would implore FEMA to give us that mission assignment that would help us in the short-term while we recruit, while we get these contracts, number one. Number two, once we have those contracts, we'll have a midterm solution, say one our two years worth of solution. But then, in that interim process, we're going to have to get some permanent work, some permanent jobs, and a real recruiting effort going on. If we do that, I think we'll be in a very strong position move forward with the forensics bureau. And trust me, it is a priority of mine to work and finally fix this in a permanent fashion, as opposed to just putting Band-Aids on it.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: So, we're here Washington. For years, Puerto Ricans have denounced the colonial status of the island. This is nothing new. But for many that we talked to this week and when we were over there, they say it has become a lot more pronounced under this administration, the way they're treated. Or at least the way they feel they're treated. How do you assess how this administration has treated the island?
ROSSELLÓ: I think there's a little bit of everything. I've seen for example, I'll take the extreme cases. I think the corps of engineers was very poor in their reaction and urgency to put up the energy grid. I think we were treated very poorly there. I think FEMA right now, I spoke to you about some of the problems, they're having controls over the funding, as opposed to the state, which is the case in every state. They're putting undue burden on Puerto Rico — and that hasn't been good. But by the same token, I have to say our relationship with HUD, for example, has been very good. Notwithstanding, at a high level, it is concerning to hear that at one point, on the table, was a consideration of taking recovery funds from Puerto Rico to use them to build a wall. That is very worrisome. That is very concerning. And I hope that that sort of mindset shifts away, because otherwise, what we're seeing towards the future is continuous conflict and of course, not a very permissible administration. But let me just say this: it might be the case where we've been treated worse, but we've always been treated in an inferior fashion.We've always, when it comes to healthcare, we've never had permanent fix. We're always given a third of the resources that other states are being given. Sure, we can talk about the grieves with this administration and I might agree with that. But at the same time, it's not only a current problem, it's a permanent problem.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Right, but specifically, do you have a working relationship with the president?
ROSSELLÓ: I used to.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: What happened?
ROSSELLÓ: You know, he's the president. He's not an easy man to reach. So, we used to have conversations in the aftermath of the storm, where I would —
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: But you would expect that, right?
ROSSELLÓ: Yeah, of course. There was a team in place. A lot of the people we used to have that connect are no longer in the administration as well. And we've sort of have lost that connection. I have to say that notwithstanding, our office does communicate often with their staffers. But a sort of a direct conversation with the president, I've been asking for a while—
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Did you ask one for this stay, for this week that you are here?
ROSSELLÓ: I did. I asked for one about a month ago. I did so very publicly, as well, because it wasn't trickling down the channels. But on Monday, I'm not going to have a one-on-one with him, but the governors are going to be able to go to the White House to discuss certain policy issues and my, you know, at the slightest chance I get, I will you know —
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: What are you hoping you bring up?
ROSSELLÓ: The recovery effort in Puerto Rico. What — and to see if his, if there is a policy to not help Puerto Rico or if the policy is to help Puerto Rico. It's a very clear answer that I would expect. And then if the policy is to help Puerto Rico, then they need to fix a whole host of things, many of which I already mentioned, in order for us to have a speedier and more effective recovery.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: You mentioned that two presidential candidates, Julián Castro and Elizabeth Warren, went to Puerto Rico soon after. I think Julian was the day after he announced and Elizabeth Warren also soon after. And you're expecting this to remain a routine now, most likely of Democratic candidates. We'll see how many Republicans will get to challenge the president. Will you support the Democratic candidate in 2020?
ROSSELLÓ: I'm a Democrat —
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Whoever it is.
ROSSELLÓ: Yeah. I'm a Democrat.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: You've supported Republicans before …
ROSSELLÓ: I have. People that have been very helpful for Puerto Rico and that support our views, particularly on equality, on statehood and on the rebuild of Puerto Rico. So, while I'm a proud Democrat, I'm also cognizant that there are many people that are willing to help. And I want to be thankful for those people that have helped. Of course, like many of my fellow Democrats and citizens, we're waiting to see what unfolds. I mean, right now, the field is large already and it doesn't even seem to be the tip of the iceberg. It's going to be a big field. And I really want to listen to what they have to offer both Puerto Rico and the nation as a whole. I really am very interested in hearing what their position on equality for Puerto Rico is — and what they're going to do about it, right? It's not just a matter of having lip service and saying 'yes, we want equality for the people of Puerto Rico,' but what are you actually going to do about it?So, those things are going to drive my decisions. But certainly, on policy matters, and I have —
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: You will likely support the Democratic candidate.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Okay, what is at stake in the presidential election in 2020, for Puerto Rico and the nation as a whole? Both.
ROSSELLÓ: So, for Puerto Rico is using this election to get binding commitments from the candidates to see how they're going to help Puerto Rico in the rebuild. If we do get that in an effective way, we position Puerto Rico in a pathway of growth, which will be very positive. So, I think it is an important for us to get binding commitments on recovery, on issues of healthcare.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: What about a referendum? Do you want assurances that you will be able to implement a binding, or at least host a binding referendum again that would actually trigger whatever the people decide?
ROSSELLÓ: Yes, but my hope is to actually do it before the 2020 election. So I'm hopeful that we will try to that. But certainly, if not, that is one of the main, probably the main consideration that I would have. If you're supportive of equality and a transition toward statehood. And again, just supportive of abiding by the will of the people of Puerto Rico. But it has to be binding. You can't just say 'I'm for self-determination,' and then have the people self-determine and do nothing about it.There has to be something that actually gets us a result. So, I'll be certainly looking into that for Puerto Rico. For the nation, policy and what our world view is. And this is why, I mean, big issues that are very important — I mean one stems in Puerto Rico, which is equality — but I think in general, social equality, equality on the economic front. I'm very much keen on reducing inequality and seeing how we can potentiate more opportunities. A vision of how are we going to tackle climate change.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: That's big for you, an island.
ROSSELLÓ: It is big for me, because we're on an island. Puerto Rico is third jurisdiction that was most affected by climate change in the world and now, we stand on a position to become the model for resiliency in the future.I think issues of health care, access to health care and how we're actually we're going to land some of these opportunities in health care and education that will grant opportunities for our citizens. Those are going to be the main drivers. And particularly on those last two, on health care and education, I would want to see the how, the how is going to be executed. But, in terms of vision, this election stems from believing in science and climate change or not believing in science and climate change.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: The president says it's a hoax.
ROSSELLÓ: Exactly. As a scientist, I can tell you: it's very real. And as a Puerto Rican that lives in the island and sees the coastline diminishing, that sees how an island, Palominito, which was there threes ago is no longer there.These things are having a real effect. It's a matter of seeing if health care is a priority for you or not. It's an election that will allow us to see if we tackle inequality or augment it. It's an election to see if we want to open ourselves to the world and invite diversity, or we want to close, shut ourselves out and have a more exclusive and divisive separated world view from the rest of the nation.So, I think many things are at stake. The upside of it is I think the differences are stark, so people are going to be able to make their minds based in some of these issues.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Now, the situation in Venezuela. I know the administration has garnered what is probably very rare bipartisan support here in Congress with the steps that it has taken. And I'm sure you're supportive of them, from what I've read. What is Puerto Rico doing?
ROSSELLÓ: We were the first ones to interject here. About six months ago, we got leaders from the opposition party to come to Puerto Rico, establish a roadmap for what was going to happen, the 100 days after the transition from Maduro. We positioned ourselves as the destination for human aid, when the time would come to do so.I've been very critical of the Maduro regime. I think that anybody that values human rights cannot support him or cannot be silent, because if you're silent with this position, if you don't have a position on what Maduro is doing, you're complicitly supporting him. So, Puerto Rico is there at the forefront. We've sent human aid. We've recently sent a boat that's on its way. And we've been working with President Guaidó and the leadership in Venezuela so that we can move the pressure, so that Venezuela can step way from this horrible dictatorship regime that has killed so many and hurt so many, and limited resources for the vast majority of them. And move into a more democratic and functional Venezuela.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Many Puerto Ricans have identified with the situation there in Venezuela because they feel a sense of Latin American unity, despite being part of the U.S. Is Puerto Rico part of Latin America, in your opinion?
ROSSELLÓ: I think people try to box us in, but I think this is the real value of Puerto Rico. We're part of the United States, but we're culturally bound to Latin America. So, we literally are that bridge between Latin America and the United States. So, yes, I very much feel a connection to my brothers and sisters in Venezuela, as well as the rest in Latin America.And I think there is part of that. There is part of that conviction. But there's also a deep-rooted commitment for human rights, civil rights, respect of democracy and the opportunity for our fellow brothers and sisters to grow, and to have a prosperous future. And I think all of those are drivers for the help that's been growing in Puerto Rico, which frankly has been pouring in significantly from our island. Aside from a few absent voices on the matter or some that actually have supported Maduro, the vast majority of Puerto Ricans and the whole of my government, supports a regime change and supports, recognizes President Guaidó
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Lastly governor, what are your political aspirations in the future? Are you seeking reelection?
ROSSELLÓ: I'm seeking to continue on working in Puerto Rico. Yes, I've stated that I'm here in Puerto Rico as governor for the long-run and for however long the people of Puerto Rico give me the opportunity to serve.
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: If your wish comes true and Puerto Rico becomes a state, would you be willing to run for Congress?
ROSSELLÓ: You know —
MONTOYA-GALVEZ: A Senate seat, maybe?
ROSSELLÓ: My focus right now is governing Puerto Rico and turning Puerto Rico into a state. My dream would be that somebody in Puerto Rico would get to be a senator, and would get to be a congressman or congresswoman representing our island.I'm 100 percent committed on just being governor of Puerto Rico, and the rest is just future speculation and so forth.