Presidential candidate Joe Biden suggested in a campaign speech that the administration’s response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico was affected by a misunderstanding.
“It’s shameful, the way we treated Puerto Rico and the islands,” Politico quoted Biden as saying. “I’m not even sure people in the president’s administration knew Puerto Ricans are all citizens.”
“I’m not joking,” Biden continued.
It is true that polls prior to the 2017 hurricane season showed that more than half of stateside Americans were unaware that people born in Puerto Rico are citizens, just as people born in States are. Polls following the hurricanes also showed that people who knew this were twice as likely to support helping Puerto Rico.
Comments in social media at the time often showed this confusion with comments like, “Why help Puerto Rico when we have problems in the United States?”.
Earlier this year, White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley referred to Puerto Rico as “that country” twice during a TV interview.
Yet a Trump campaign statement leading up to his 2016 election recognized that “[t]here are 3.7 million American citizens living in Puerto Rico.”
Biden’s position on Puerto Rico
Then-Vice President Joe Biden said in 2015 that the current territorial status of Puerto Rico is “very bizarre” and that the territory should “fight hard” for statehood.
He made these comments in response to a question from an intern in an exchange subsequently reported by that intern. According to the Orlando Sentinel, that intern asked, “Mr. Vice President, as opposed to my fellow intern colleagues present here today, I will not be able to vote for you in four months …. You see, Mr. Vice President, I am Puerto Rican; and despite Puerto Ricans possessing American citizenship by birth, and thousands of brave Puerto Rican soldiers like my father having served and even died for our nation, many dying as we speak, we are denied equal voting and representation rights under the American flag.”
The young man concluded by asking, “Mr. Vice President, do you think we are contradicting ourselves as a nation when we preach freedom and democracy abroad in countries within the Middle East, and yet, to this very day, we maintain 3.7 million American citizens on the island of Puerto Rico under a disenfranchised political status, where they are denied the most basic fundamental rights enshrined in our U.S. Constitution?”
“At that moment,” according to the Sentinel, “Biden’s face became serious, yet sympathetic, as if he were about to offer a eulogy at a memorial service. After pausing for several seconds, he answered, ‘I must say, that is a very good question. I have always found Puerto Rico’s current political status as something very bizarre. My word of advice to you, and all Puerto Ricans, is that you continue to fight hard until you reach your goal of equality, and we shall act,’ Biden stated before taking one more question and finally disappearing through a hallway surrounded by the Secret Service.”